FringeReview UK 2017
Helen Edmundson’s 2015 RSC commission Queen Anne directed by Natalie Abrahami transfers to the Haymarket. Hannah Clark’s unfussy oak-panelled surround with doors and retracting bedchamber and her costumes, caught in Charles Balfour’s period lighting effects: real torches and candles. Ben and Max Ringham’s music (they produce sound too) is directed by Candida Caldicot.
It’s perhaps no coincidence both Queen Anne and the Almeida’s Schiller Mary Stuart should be revived so swiftly, and simultaneously. Indeed you have to go back to Schiller to find such a historic power struggle between two women on stage.
Helen Edmundson’s 2015 RSC commission transfers to the Haymarket’s regality without losing the thrust it enjoyed in the RSC’s Swan. Hannah Clark’s unfussy oak-panelled surround with doors and retracting bedchamber, chairs and tables gleam reflected on an onyx floor, allow the depth of her gorgeous dresses, male and female, to double and fatten. Sumptuary laws are trodden underfoot as much as the broadsheets raining at intervals, caught in Charles Balfour’s period lighting effects: real torches and candles.
Directed by Natalie Abrahami Queen Anne oscillates court intrigue with court ritual, a silken struggle shot through with satirical flurries from the Scriblerian Club. It’s led by Swift, Defoe and rising Country Whig politician Harley, trimmer to Tories, our most important literary collector and pivotal to the queen’s shift from Whig to Tory.
Though not always vocally clear in the songs – in Ben and Max Ringham’s punchy catches, directed by Candida Caldicot – the Club raises energy, irreverence, and the seam Edmundson explores about the first time news went viral after licencing relaxed from 1695. Depicting such writers as on a par with another Almeida production, James Graham’s Ink, about the rise of the Sun, is a compromise Edmundson makes not to weigh down exposition, though it’s a loss. Here in mounted groans a mock Queen Anne’s delivered of not a family but a fart.
Not Emma Cunniffe’s painfully believable Anne though. Reprising the title part Cunniffe pitches her voice high in frailty as she presses her body into heaviness and leg sores. Hollowed from seventeen pregnancies – mostly miscarriages with a son dying at eleven – even her devoted husband Prince George can’t assuage she’s prey to tendresse. George touchingly underplayed by Hywel Morgan, depicts a rare shaft of consolation. Anne has to survive Dave Fishley’s humiliating Wiliam III.
Cue an old friend: Romola Garai’s Sarah Churchill Duchess of Marlborough, ambitious for her general husband (still Britain’s greatest) for the Whig party, above all for herself. It’s not her ambition though but her violent overreach that endangers even the Queen’s love. Garai flounces and soothes, raising her voice higher just as Cunniffe’s voice lowers into painful authority. It’s a remarkable cross-over of roles, Abrahami using pitch as journey.
Garai’s disdain for the Queen is made painfully plain by Edmundson, faithfully executed by Garai in a whiplash delivery of blandishment when Anne’s awake; disgust openly expressed when asleep.
Just as the Queen gives up on children at the start, the Scriblerians do deliver: a poor relative of Harley and the Duchess: Beth Park’s plain-seeming wittily-speaking Abigail Hill, wanting honest employment and setting the engine of Harley’s access. It’s easy to see Hill or Lady Masham as she becomes as intent on displacing a rival. Edmundson and Park ensure it’s more about survival. Hill’s character is pragmatic with a genuine affection for her monarch; so when her erstwhile benefactor throws down ‘you have made an enemy’ it decides Hill.
Naturally Garai’s mezzo resonates from blandishments to habitual spite, vented in private with Chu Omambala’s dignified, relatively principled Marlborough. Extraordinarily able as a diplomat abroad too he needs his wife’s intelligence at home, and though he doesn’t always get it, this portrayal of real if skewed partnership is another sweeping dynamic Edmundson celebrates. The war of Spanish Succession to prevent French dominance is ruinous but promotes England, then Britain, to world power through Marlborough. His gradually appalled recognition of how far Garai’s Duchess will go is matched by pragmatism, strained with private tragedy striping then hardening the couple. When cornered in loyalties by the Queen, it’s excruciating to see which way Omambala’s face will jump.
The personal’s political though; we’re watching the gelling of the party politics we recognize. Anne wants to appoint ’the best and cleverest of men’ disdains whether they’re ‘labelled Whig or Tory’ – and sets a royal impartiality that endures. Politically Edmundson suggests this has much to do with Anne’s striving for the Act of Union, something else her Jacobite-hating confidante distrusts.
James Garnon’s iridescent Harley ‘a painted thing… that stinks and stings’ as Alexander Pope later snarled shows a complex brilliant figure to comic advantage dressed – without making him absurd. Harley’s shifting the monarch to Tory values, which include her beloved church embraced incidentally fifty new churches to be raised from taxes, almost as ruinous as the war he opposes. His keynote ‘and I am not of this opinion’ while pouring more leprous distilment of Whiggish malpractice into his monarch’s ear, raises the most consistent laugh in the house.
Into this mix Richard Hope’s dignified often crestfallen Chancellor Goldolphin brigns the actual gravitas of state and how easily foundations get swept away, whilst Daisy Ashford’s Lady Clarendon and Sheena Bhattessa’s Lady Somerset amplify what endures, as does a dignified Michael Fenton Stevens as Dr Radcliffe.
It’s otherwise a young vivacious cast knocking the stuffy out of any eighteenth century wigs. Master of Scriblerian revels Jonathan Christie’s satirist MP Maynwaring sparks it out of the previous Restoration whilst Jonny Glynn’s oaken-voiced Swift gets a fine speech at Harley’s elevation: he’s no longer of them, has to be watched – Edmundson’s nearest hint of Harley’s fate. With someone as vocally distinguished as Carl Prekopp as Defoe, it’s a pity more could not be made of him. Edmundson though judges a limit to exposition; a coherent not simply scatological opposition would have meant more than the three hours in total this superb play encompasses. As it is, this small miracle of historic compression and power-play reaches a dramatic conclusion worthy of someone fatter than the maligned Anne. Her voice is her journey, worthy of attendance.