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FringeReview UK 2019

Low Down

Directed by Natalie Abrahami, designed by Ben Stones and candelelit by Prema Mehta (Technician Cleo Maynard), with Angus McCrae as Composer, Musical Director Zands Duggan, Movement Director Anna Morrissey Glynn MacDonald, Text Giles Block, Voice Emma Woodvine and Tess Dignan, Wardrobe Megan Cassidy, Wigs Pam Humpage, Crown Maker Martin Adams, Scenic Artist Emily Carne, Curtain Maker Hannah Williams.


Ella Hickson’s increasingly ridden two obsessions: mythologizing historical narrative – which reached its apogee in the magnificent, mythic Oil. And breaking fourth walls all over, from The Writer and combining this in ANNA, dealing with the DDR.

Swive starts with this kind of address: ‘My mother seduced a man so successfully that he altered the constitutional history of the country… When she finally took her knickers off she lost everything. Including her head.’ So we get this Elizabeth’s colloquial and contemporary and there’s plenty of OKs lubricating the 87 minutes of this intimate candlelit four-hander.

Did I say… ‘The sense of history in this theatre, the cosy candle-y Elizabethan feeling, is bullshit. The space is no more than five years old. .. a completely false sense of security.’

That address as in The Writer then fades till the end but the theme, false security is what drives Hickson’s two Elizabeths. Nina Cassells as young Elizabeth (and laconic Washerwoman and luckless Katherine Grey) trembles with an initial vulnerability, sassy sense of her attractions and an almost Calvinist religious stance. Which considering Calvin (via Cecil) really only wishes to confer ‘Governor’ not ‘Head’ of the Anglican Church is piquant. There’s several moments when the young Elizabeth repeats a prayer over and over in terror as the candles are snuffed and she fears being dragged to her death.

Hickson delights in repeating other sentences – whether religious, sexual or political – in different characters with dramatic irony. Hence Abigail Cruttenden’s powerful matriarch Catherine Parr warns Elizabeth off sexual games, and her response is later echoed by the pert young Katherine Grey. There’s certainly real tensions between Parr and her young charge. ‘Don’t use your intellect against me’ Parr enjoins ‘I gave it to you.’

It’s the older Elizabeth who later feels threatened by Grey’s youthful charms: ‘To fuck without my permission, is treason.’ Nevertheless it’s Cruttenden in her otherwise ferociously commanding performance who reflects: ‘they tell you you have to marry before your face runs out and to have babies before your body runs out.’

It’s the men though who cause Elizabeth existential crises. Cassells plays with then shockingly betrays Colin Tierney’s too-charmed Thomas Seymour, and more dangerously charming Robert Dudley, bringing forth the most powerful speech of the lot, as Cruttenden’s Elizabeth admits her mutual desire but how she must suppress the weak part of her that threatens to engulf everything. Tierney relishes the difference between these two and the way Dudley gradually acknowledges Elizabeth’s overlordship is quietly touching.

Cruttenden’s Elizabeth possesses a ringing authority with an absolutism whose DNA would have consequences. Michael Gould’s fox-like Cecil constantly tests both young Elizabeth and her older self and is constantly thwarted. The narrative after 1565 jump-cuts and ends with the infamous order to execute Mary Queen of Scots; then a peroration of Elizabeth’s 44 years as the only successful – and unmarried – queen.

Directed by Natalie Abrahami who’s credited as co-creator, designed by Ben Stones with a blank reveal and suite of exits, it’s candelelit by Prema Mehta with Angus McCrae as composer in a fluid, percussive score, with Musical Director Zands Duggan. Movement Director’s Anna Morrissey with plenty of sweep-ins and outs, Scenic Artist Emily Carne’s work is richly in evidence for the first five minutes.

Hickson’s own fierce intelligence is ideally suited to the thew and argument of Elizabeth’s survival. The doublings work to reinforce those verbal doublings; and the intimacy – five years old bullshit or not – means we read this Elizabeth not so much in flashes of lightning but candle blackouts. Such a short play doesn’t own that epic strangeness of Oil, but that relatively straightforward storytelling isn’t what moves Hickson any more.

A Hilliard rather than Holbein, it’s the velocity of Elizabeth’s survival that enthrals: a singleness both raw and slowly cooked. Hickson’s dialogue is some of the sharpest given to the most intelligent monarch we (or possibly any country) ever had. Despite Hickson’s colloquialisms and shadow-boxing that fourth wall, parallels with today are oblique at best. And Hickson’s not interested in pathos or potential tragedy, though allows a little. It’s a limitation Hickson embraces, focused on showing how a phenomenal intellect pursued survival for her country’s survival, and knew how to count the cost. See it.