Here come the girls:Queen Anne, RSC

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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.

http://www.rsc.org.uk/queen-anne/

 

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A Winter’s Tale of two halves

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Kenneth Branagh as Leontes. Photo by Johan Persson

 

Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, live from the Garrick Theatre.

I ended up loving this production. By the end of the final redemptive scene, when the ‘statue’ of Hermione comes to life, and families are re-united, I was quietly crying in my corner of the cinema. However, it took me a little while to warm to it.

Let’s start with the raves. The performances. The cast are utterly brilliant. Kenneth Branagh as the jealous Leontes reminds us why he became such a famed interpreter of Shakespeare in the first place – and manages to hold in check his occasional tendency to over-Branaghness. He handles Leontes’ sudden descent into jealous madness well, giving just enough hints of possessiveness to help make sense of it. Miranda Raison is a match for him as his unjustly accused queen, Hermione, bringing just the right amount of wounded dignity without making her unbelievably saintly.

And, of course, there is Judi Dench, as Paulina. There isn’t much you can say in praise of Dame Judi, that hasn’t already been said, and it is all richly deserved. Having an actress of her calibre in the role of Paulina reminds you how important the character is. She is the only one – including the audience – who knows that that Hermione isn’t dead, and who arranges Hermione’s return (via the aforementioned stunt with the statue). Dench’s Paulina feels almost like a puppet-mistress, pulling the strings of both the other characters and the audience. This feeling is strengthened by the fact that the opening speech of the second act, spoken by ‘Time’ in the play text is here delivered by Dench.

With performances like this, it might seem churlish to take issue with the production as a whole but I did have some quibbles. The staging is a mixture of the curiously old-fashioned and the overly cinematic. The old-fashioned-ness lies in both the feel and the practicalities. There are no trucks or other stage machinery, everything is carried on stage and off by hand. The three pairs of painted walls which denote Leontes’ palace remain fixed, even when the scene changes to a deserted beach in Bohemia, which looked a little odd. This looked like a fairly high-budget production, so I can only assume this was an artistic choice, but it seems like an odd one.

I can see why the Victorian setting was attractive, given that era’s obsession with sexual purity, but it takes away the power of Leontes’ threats to have Paulina and his child burnt. In this setting they feel like just the ravings of a mad man, to an Elizabethan audience who might well have remembered the burning of ‘heretics’ by Bloody Mary, they must have had a whole other level of threat.

The production also deploys some intrusive background music more suited to a film than a live performance, and makes extensive use of projections. While this provides a clever way of dealing with the ‘exit pursued by a bear’ (no spoilers for those who haven’t seen it, mostly because it’s quite hard to describe, rather than out of the goodness of my heart) coupled with the cinema broadcast (technically very well done, but with some very cinematic feeling angles) the production felt a bit distant during the first half – more like a film than a play. I know this is partly the inevitable effect of watching it as a live cinema broadcast, but I’ve seen quite a few of these now, and I’ve never felt this distancing effect so strongly before.

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Florizel (Tom Bateman) and Perdita (Jessie Buckley). Photo by Johan Persson

 

Things improve in the second half, which kicks off (post Dench’s prologue) with a bang with the appearance of John Dagleish’s excellent Autolycus, cheerfully breaking the fourth wall and reminding us that we are indeed watching a stage play. The other new characters we meet in the second act keep up this high standard. Tom Bateman is a passionate (and, OK, pleasingly sexy) Florizel and Jessie Buckley as Perdita pulls off the difficult trick of being sweet without irritating. This whole section, set among the shepherds of Bohemia, works beautifully, avoiding all of the potential ‘prancing peasant’ pitfalls. The dance at the sheep shearing festival is genuinely sexy, and the comedy rustics and rogues have hints of the Victorian music hall about them, which works surprisingly well.

And then (after a somewhat cumbersome scene change, but I’d largely forgiven them by that point) we are back with Leontes for the final reconciliation. To borrow another Shakespearian sentiment – all’s well that ends well.