queen and an Sarah Churchill

Emma Cunniffe as Queen Anne  and Natascha McElhone as Sarah Churchill  Pictures: Manuel Harlan

Queen Anne

The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

*****

There is something about the RSC’s Swan Theatre which lends itself as no other to a unique excellence.

Rather like Symphony Hall, the Stratford venue with its deep thrust stage, a wonder of 1980s interior design by architect Michael Reardon, seems to will its performers - and directors - to fly to extra heights.

How many plays, though not primarily Shakespeare, have hit the mark there (though King Henry VIII , with Jane Lapotaire, leaps quickly to mind, or Antony and Cleopatra with Patrick Stewart. What about its coeval Winter’s Tale and Pericles Or David Troughton’s Macbeth; plus (without Britten) The Rape of Lucrece)?

But call to mind restored Shakespeare (Edward III), and putative semi-Shakespeare (Sir Thomas More, Cardenio); recall his great contemporaries: Jonson’s Volpone (which has just been revitalised, with Henry Goodman), The Alchemist, Sejanus or The Devil is an Ass, with John Nettles magnificent onstage and Douglas Henshall side-crackingly funny as the spurious ‘Spanish Lady.

Think of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (revisited earlier this year); of Marston and Wycherley; of Middleton’s Women, Beware Women; or Massinger’s The Roman Actor, about the death of Domitian; then Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, plus Linus Roche as a sensual Don Juan from the Spanish Golden Age (Tirso de Molina).

Add some miraculous solo turns from Victor Spinetti; from the RSC’s current Falstaff Anthony Sher (Cyrano de Bergerac), and Birmingham’s own unique Sheila Steafel; or call to mind Alec McCowen, doubling a magically sHarleypoken main house Prospero with the pouty, perplexed yet oddly amorous composer in Elgar’s Rondo; or Sheridan: a polished, witty The Rivals (with a matronly Wendy Craig), which brought on Dr Who’s, Broadchurch’s and Richard II’s then young star as a shrewd though fractious Jack Absolute; set alongside the Restoration Comedy of Congreve’s Love for Love, a play (as Artistic Director Greg Doran points out in the present programme) Queen Anne, still engaged in multiple unsuccessful pregnancies, and heir apparent (her eight-year old son William was her expected successor, but he died in 1700 aged 11, another of those ‘lost heirs’ of the British throne) herself saw and gave the royal seal of approval to on a 32nd birthday outing in February 1697, five years before her only recently expected accession.  

Jonathan Broadbent as Robert Harley

Anne , with her heartrending loss of children, (smallbox, from which she herself had suffered, was the prime killer of the day - Voltaire would shortly write that 60% of the 18th century French population caught it and 20% of the people died from it; it wasn’t till the 1790s that Jenner carried out his landmark experiments successfully pioneering the cowpox vaccine); along with a ropy succession problem, introverted court tussles, and above all the Duke of Marlborough’s continental victories (Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenaarde, Malplaquet); and the 1707 Treaty of Union (of the Scottish and English crowns), has long been a potential subject for a cracking new play.

John Churchill’s famous victories are almost incidental to Helen Edmundson’s canny, superbly crafted text, which works on teasing out the women’s point of view while the men either battle (Robert Cavangh’s thoughtfully understated Marlborough, invariably disappearing offstage to notch up the 1704-9 triumphs in the Low Countries) or scheme (Jonathan Broadbent’s Tory manipulation of the Queen., a welter of part royal-approved intrigue, is a matter of fascination throughout).

Yet if we are spared the blood in Flanders and pre-Belgium Belgium, we are given the politics that attended upon it and which followed from it (Marlborough himself will be disgraced for milking the public purse, with royal backing, to build Blenheim Palace): above all, the long and intricate (almost lesbian, but latterly soured) relationship - which dated back to before Anne’s accession; with Churchill’s wife, Sarah.

Queen and Duchess, they called each other ‘Mrs. Morley and Mrs Freeman’, inventing a measure of social equality: a delightful little twist which colours and features in Edmundson’s beautifully and intelligently rehearsed play; there are lots of human touches like this which enliven what was both a political and a classic female standoff between the two women (classic, because Sarah increasingly encroaches on, and all but betrays, their intensity of the early years). Don’t promote (or overpromote) your friends, seems one of the conclusions that might be drawn from this awesomely passionate, as well as hugely tense, drama.

There’s no avoiding it: this story of Anne, with its poignancy, pathos and meaningful rather than just catty female bickering, where the behind the scenes, internal battles of politics so relevant to our present day and age (we seem incapable of understanding how, dialogue, debate and dialectic are crucial to the reaching of any decision. political or personal), emerges almost as a fairy tale: a chronicle or fable of pure gold.

And it is so here. Edmundson’s Queen Anne, often enough couched in an exquisite and fluent alternately iambic-trochaic verse - of which Shakespeare would have been proud - interspersed with flurries of fluent prose, is, I would argue, right up there with the  best of biographical plays: The Life of Galileo, Schiller’s Mary Stuart and Wallenstein, Büchner’s Danton’s Death, Rattigan’s Adventure Story, David Pownall’s Music to Murder By, Edward Bond’s Lear, and particularly in this case, Alan Bennett’s The Madness of King George.

Natalie Abrahami’s fresh-as-a-daisy RSC staging - a wonderful, rich, rewarding evening in the theatre - effortlessly romps off with its five stars: for sheer eloquence; for the impressive assurance and deftness of individual performances; for the outstanding quality of direction and sense of pacing (Abrahami hails from Hull Truck, Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre and more recently the Young Vic); and for the endless joy of Edmundson’s waste-not-a-moment script.

She has a quarter of a century of such drafting behind her, not least Mother Teresa is Dead (suddenly topical, given the last few days’ news), and the adaptation Coram Boy. Patently a writer of real range, Edmundson followed Golden Age Spain (Calderón) with the delicious Swallows and Amazons (Bristol, London’s West End, National Tour).

In a way there is something Arthur Ransome-ish about the fracas that increasingly undermines and finally unravels the two women’s intense, genuine but fraught friendship. Both seem at times pretty child-like, Sarah in her smug, domineering bossiness, Anne in her quiet resentment that will ultimately, for all her acquiescence, generosity and obvious diffidence, boil over.

She can never quite become Queen till she has dispatched and dispensed with this adorer/confidante/adviser (wonderfully and mischievously enacted by a notably gifted Natascha McElhone) and assumed the role of leader herself; it is almost Hal and Falstaff, Nicholas II and Rasputin.  

Emma Cunniffe’s Anne clocks up, if anything, several notches better. While Sarah is a natural schemer and betimes bully, Anne’s put-uponness, her long-sufferingness, her considerateness is all drawn from her experience of personal tragedy. Those few- days’-surviving, still-born or toddler deaths; two gorgeous small girls, potential subjects for Gainsborough in a later era, simply excised by the worst pox of all; and the expiry aged 11 of Prince William). It may have been almost the norm then, and almost into Victorian times, but nothing makes it easier. This is a woman, and a monarch, who has ached with grief.

Actually McElhone’s Sarah is drawn up in her tracks midway through the play, when her son Jack (a sympathetic showing from Elliott Ross), older but only just starting to win his spurs, also drops dead. You would have thought this might make Lady Churchill pause for thought; but if anything, it makes her more convinced that she alone is right. Not a good idea for an adviser to a ruler (witness Thomas Cromwell; call up Buckingham).

Edmundson seasons the drama with selected characters who supply what may be characterised as vignettes. Jonathan Broadbent’s Harley, slithering up a particularly greasy pole, is actually far from a vignette: his engineering makes him the third most important figure in the play, in an era when Whig and Tory were virtually first defined, and when the role of Prime Minister, usually attributed first to Walpole (who became First Lord of the Treasury in 1721 under George I) virtually emerged.

But the by now widowed William III, Anne’s brother-in-law, played with a nice seasoning of character by Carl Prekopp, though appearing several times, gets but a modest look-in text-wise. The Lord Chancellor, Sydney Godolphin (1645-1712), a Charles II protege and nearing the end of an extra-long political career (a bit like Duke Humphrey in Henry VI), is to be seen frequently fussing around, partly ineffectually taking his orders for others, and enjoying his best stage moment only when he is finally sacked and put out to grassPrince George (by Anne); John Radcliffe (Michael Fenton Stevens), no less, is Anne’s physician, much needed even after her pregnancies cease at the turn of the century, but not developed.

The writer Daniel Defoe (Carl Prekopp taking a second role), well worth a play in his own right - the sort of Swiftian character who might well have played a role in the soon-to-be launched Spectator paper - does have some juicy asides and pithy observations: arguably he is the most serious opportunity missed among those characters not fully developed but left to swim for themselves. It’s arguably a criticism of the text’s structure; yet because each character’s brief intrusion does add something, definitely not one serious enough to spoil the impact of the appetising whole play.    

Hywel Morgan as Prince George of Denmark

But the ‘minor’ character whom I liked and enjoyed most was Hywel Morgan’s Prince George of Denmark, father to all those 17 dead children. His (the Prince’s) role in history must actually have been a far from minor one, and what satisfied especially was the way he recalled (perhaps anticipated?), by his sensitivity and non-intrusiveness, not just Queen Victoria’s Prince Albert, but the version we see in the film Young Victoria, matching Emily Blunt with the wonderful Rupert Friend, who captures to the letter the enlightened Germanness, the affection, wisdom and old head on young shoulders feel of the young Albert, and shows exactly why he was beloved of the British political classes and aristocracy at least.

You feel with this brother and uncle of Danish kings, who during the play’s just over a decade-long span is in his mid-40s to mid-50s (he died aged 55 in 1708, around the very time Anne’s relationship with Sarah Churchill disintegrated), with a haltingly, almost amusingly Germanic English accent, is a hugely sympathetic husband, and might well have been an architect or designer or adviser to city planners, or indeed visionary, such as Albert later became - only to expire at a mere 42.

Morgan made something of this tentative adjunct to the monarchy (not, one felt, a Consort in the way Albert was in the 19th century or indeed Prince Philip in the 20th). Mary, elder daughter of a rejected catholic monarch (James II), was for her brief five years, being the real heir, raised to an equal stance with William, rather like the 16th Spanish dual monarchy. One might think the ever-loyal, there-when-you-need-me George, especially being from dutifully Protestant Scandinavia, might have deserved being better remembered by a grateful nation. A statue, perhaps?

Handel began his long connection with the British court round about that time, arriving in 1711 and settling in 1712, and one  of the loveliest pieces of music he ever composed was his secular Birthday Ode for Queen Anne, most likely first heard on 6 February 1713, and celebrating above all the Treaty of Utrecht which concluded the War of the Spanish Succession, which had justified all those Marlborough victories. Utrecht was signed off by a Tory government, showing how Jonathan Broadbent’s wily Harley (who changed parties like Marlborough’s descendant Winston Churchill) had triumphed in winning the monarch’s ear. It did him little good: Robert Harley was out on his own ear, and even imprisoned, once George of Hanover succeeded in 1714

But the startling music, and above all the trumpet-supported aria ‘Eternal source of light divine’ (‘And with distinguished glory shine / To add a lustre to this day’), like the quite stunning portraits of Anne and her short-lived children by Van Dyck’s successor at court, Sir Godfrey Kneller (originally Lübeck-born Gottfried Kniller, 1646-1723), both remind us of the fabulous achievements and unblemished military glory which marked this curiously neglected ruler’s reign.

What a tragedy there was no Shakespeare to write us verse plays on monarchs from Edward VI and Mary to James II and Anne. All were tinged with tragedy. No reign among these could compare with Henry VIII and above all Elizabeth I’s, were it not for Anne’s.

What Helen Edmundson and the RSC team have done is to show us - we know it well from the bard’s Henry IV or Garbo’s Queen Christina - the pain and crippling isolation of monarchy. In plainly stands in a great tradition. This is a superlative play, no mistake about it. And we have been given a great production to match it. Hurrah for both. To 23-01-15

Roderic Dunnett

09-12-15 

The production will upon in the West End at The Theatre Royal, Haymarket running throughout the summer from 30 June to 30 September. Theatre Royal Haymarket or Seatplan

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