No one really remembers much about Queen Anne. When I announced to colleagues where I was headed before the opening night of Helen Edmundson’s thusly-named play, which has transferred to the palatial Theatre Royal Haymarket from Stratford-Upon-Avon, they gaped at me with blank faces. “Did we even have a Queen Anne?” one asked in a sidelong whisper, as if this awkward little moment was a toss up between a piss-take on my part and embarrassingly unpatriotic ignorance on his. But falling at the very end of the Stuarts’ reign, it’s no wonder that poor old Anne might have seemed a bit of an anti-climax at school, after the soap-worthy Tudors and the film-worthy Charleses and Oliver Cromwell. Plus, the line of succession doesn’t half get convoluted when William of Orange sticks his oar in.
What is not often remembered is that Anne, in her 12 years on the throne from 1702 to 1714, oversaw key moments in this nation’s history, including the formation of Great Britain itself. Add in the eerily recognisable political tensions of the time (Scotland’s unsteady membership of the union, worrying levels of national debt only aggravated by the cost of ongoing wars overseas that perhaps we should have stayed out of, increasing pressure on politicians in the face of contemporary forms of media scrutinising them ever more greatly, an unhappiness with two-party politics – back then because the structure was only just emerging as opposed to now when we barely seem able to cobble an excuse for it together) and a battle of wills between two women of significance, and you’ve got an audience’s attention.
Those wills belong to the initially weak monarch as she accedes the thrown and her lifelong friend, Sarah Churchill, an unscrupulous schemer who nonetheless has Anne’s ear, which she bends determinedly to push her Whig agenda. The beauty of this play is its telling of the complicated relationship between two female leads, which the theatre could do with far more of. Adding to the production’s girl power, it is solidly directed by Natalie Abrahami.
Emma Cunniffe’s Anne is, at the beginning, skin-crawlingly needy; unable to cope with the merest social interactions and dependent on Sarah (Romola Garai) to tuck her up at night, literally. Early on, we can understand Sarah’s revulsion at this childish, sometimes lustful intimacy with an overweight, gout-ridden queen who can barely walk for the open sores on her legs (on one occasion Anne clasps Sarah’s face in her hands and tries to kiss her lips, before Sarah manages to sidle out of grasp). Sarah and her husband the Duke of Marlborough (of Battle of Blenheim fame), are fierce political players and, as Anne is led to understand, her voices of reason and authority. But as Anne learns more of what it is to rule, what it is to be responsible for a legitimate and effective government, who around her she can and cannot trust, her suspicions about the Churchills’ motives are aroused and we watch as she gradually gains in self confidence.
Cunniffe becomes more poised as part of Anne’s transformation; her head sits prouder, her hair is neatened up, she changes out of shabby, shapeless night gowns and into more suitably regal tailoring. And, as with the tipping of a baker’s scales, Sarah simultaneously unravels – they cannot both have their way, and they cannot both hold the power. It is affecting to watch a friendship disintegrate with such candour – a strength of the writing – and Garai comes into her own far more in these impassioned later outbursts than when trying to assert authority via haughty arm gesticulations, as at first. One also comes to appreciate the monarch’s own personal battles, being a woman who has had to endure 17 pregnancies with no surviving heirs, yet remains firm in her resolve to mother a nation.
The production does end up dragging a tad, buckling under the weight of the content it so faithfully expounds, hence the use of the Shakespearean tool that calls on bawdy louts to offer intermittent light relief and social commentary. To be honest, there could have been more of these moments, as their few appearances seemed a cursory nod to the tyranny of the period’s emerging satirists, and you’ve either got to commit fully to such lurid jesting, or dispense with it entirely. As with some other elements of this Stratford transfer, this didn’t feel wholly at ease on the vast and plush West End stage. Nonetheless, Queen Anne exhibits fine new writing and highlights a portion of history that we really ought to know more about. It is a refreshing addition to theatreland that will no doubt be honed into a future classic before too long.
The RSC’s Queen Anne at Theatre Royal Haymarket, London until 30th September 2017. Running time 2 hours 30 minutes, including a 20 minute interval. For more information and tickets please visit the website.