History is male. A parade of portraits of men, distinguished only by the changing fashions of their frock-coats. History is so male that there is a well-worn feminist joke which holds that it should be ‘his-story’ as that’s what it usually is. However beloved, the history plays of Shakespeare are largely male affairs, aside from the odd wife or token whore. So Queen Anne, performed by the RSC at the Swan in Stratford, is a refreshing change. Not only does it have two female lead roles, but also a female writer (Helen Edmundson) and a female director (Natalie Abrahami).
The play is the story of the relationship between Queen Anne (Emma Cunniffe), the last ruler of the unhappy and unfortunate Stuart dynasty, and Sarah Churchill (Natascha McElhone), who rose from relatively humble beginnings to be Duchess of Marlborough, through a combination of her husband’s skill as a general and her own influence over the Queen.
Much of the buzz around this play has derived from the casting of McElhone – she’s more usually to be found on film sets with the likes of George Clooney than treading the boards – and she doesn’t disappoint. Her Sarah is everything the ailing, needy and weak Queen Anne is not – tall, beautiful, determined and vigourous. Sarah is also what your grandmother might have described as ‘a piece of work’. In other words, she’s a bit of a bitch. But – and maybe this is because the script is written by a woman – this is not a one-dimensional portrait. Sarah has a heart too, as when we see her grieving over the death of a child. At the end, when she receives her final dismissal from the Queen, and breaks down in tears, is she crying out of genuine remorse over a lost friendship, or just thwarted ambition? My inclination is to the latter, but it’s testament to both Edmundson’s writing and McElhone’s performance that you can’t be absolutely sure.
Emma Cunniffe’s Anne, although it will probably be the recipient of less press comment, is an equally strong performance. However the friendship between the two women may have been originally, by the time we meet them, their relationship is a toxic one, for Anne at least. She’s dependent on Sarah, more like a needy toddler than a grown woman, let alone a queen. The process that she goes through is not so much one of growing into her regal role, but simply growing up.
As well as the two female leads, I wondered if this this play could be considered ‘female’ or ‘feminine’ (both loaded terms, but I’m stuck with them) in the way it concentrates on dialogue, to the exclusion of soliloquies and other long speeches, in contrast to other newly-written plays I’ve seen recently (Oppenheimer and King Charles III spring especially to mind). There’s a distinct lack of grandstanding in this play, and it’s all the better for it, especially as it helps keep the play moving along nicely. Despite a running time of just over two and half hours, the performance flies by – there’s no dead wood in this script, and even the necessary bits of historical exposition (the Test Act and Occasional Conformity anyone?) are well handled.
The pace is helped by the bawdy satirical songs which punctuate the play, performed by royal doctor John Radcliffe (Micheal Fenton Stevens) and his cronies. Edmundson very cleverly weaves these songs into the plot, making them more than the mere diversions they seem at first. According to the programme, Edmundson also wrote these songs herself – she captures the feel and idiom of the era so perfectly I thought at first that they were genuine songs of the period.
As befits the RSC’s great ensemble tradition, the supporting cast are also strong, especially Robert Cavanagh as Sarah’s husband, and Jonathan Broadbent as the slippery politician Robert Harley. I would have liked to have seen a little more of Tom Turner’s Jonathan Swift, who gets some brilliant lines. But in the end, this play has women at its heart – reminding us that history doesn’t have to be just ‘his story’.
Queen Anne is in rep at the Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon until 23rd January.