Commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in 2015, Queen Anne by Helen Edmundson, and directed for the Lace Market by Guy Evans tells the little known story of Queen Anne, as she ascends the throne.
Queen Anne is of ill health and is plagued with sadness following the death of her child and her inability to produce an heir despite 17 pregnancies. Michelle Smith plays the monarch as a sympathetic character, highlighting vulnerabilities, and, at least in Act 1, Anne is presented as weak and overly trusting. Smith does a fine job of using her physicality and voice to show Anne’s fragility and contrastingly, her strength when needed.
The story focuses mainly on the relationship between Queen Anne and her close “friend” and favourite, the Duchess of Marlborough. Watching Tamzin Grayson-Gaunt take the stage, I can only describe her as a cross between Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targarian and Lady Macbeth. From the outset, there is just something not to trust about her character, even though she presents as having the Queen’s best interests at heart. It becomes clearer though that she is seeking power – she is a formidable lady, and the audience only hopes that Anne will see through her façade before the curtain falls. Grayson-Gaunt has the poise expected of a power-hungry character, adapting tone and physicality to suit the intention of the character.
Its great to see a political period drama with three female leads. Played by Dani Wain, Abigail Hill is one of the first characters we are introduced to and her exchange with Jonathan Swift (Ruben Whitter) and Robert Harley (James Whitby) really cemented her character. Not afraid to stand up for herself and get what she wants, Abigail finds herself waiting on the queen and married to the sweet-tempered Colonel Masham. Special mention goes to Ruben Whitter who has real presence on the stage and perfectly captures the posture and clipped speech of the time.
The play itself has a lot of characters to keep up with actors playing too many multiple characters which causes some confusion, especially in regard to Prince George and Dr Radcliffe. While Alistair Hudson does his absolute best to play the roles differently (and I must mention Hudson’s memorable Danish accent which adds to the characterisation of Prince George), the costumes are too similar to make an easy separation. If it were possible to have cast them separately the differentiation would have been much clearer,
Edmundson’s script is so very wordy, with surprisingly little action, not helped by a few fluffed lines this evening. and some directorial blocking issues. There needs to be more emphasis placed on purposeful staging and lighting. For this reviewer, a bare stage with it’s draped curtains, is just far too simplistic and does not provide enough of a “place” for the play to be set and trusts too much on theatrical economy.
While the fabulous collection of elaborate costumes rallied together by (D Sheard, M Bromley, P Murdin, P Signorini, T Taberner) and wigs (Linda Croston) make it very clear that this is a period piece, I really do miss a proper sumptuous setting and simple heavy hangings don’t always work in this production. The play is also quite historically complex, and granted, perhaps, someone with more Queen Anne period knowledge than I would have been able to follow it with ease. However, all too often, I’m afraid I find my attention is often wandering to the point of boredom. I sincerely want to care more about the characters, an awful lot more than is sporadically given.
The rightfully world- acclaimed playwright Helen Edmundson is well known for her admirable and gutsy theatrical portrayals of classical figures such as her Mother Theresa in Mother Teresa is Dead, the author of Frankenstein in the play Mary Shelley and Tolstoy’s tragic heroine Anna Karenina ever at odds with the would-be romantic and non-romantic men in her life and on the edges of Russian High Class and Working Class civilisation. But somehow the overly complex nature of the myriad of characters milling about on stage in Edmundson’s and The Lace Market Theatre’s Queen Anne literally loses the plot for me. I wish it were not so.
However, despite my misgivings, I’d like to offer a huge well done to the cast, especially the main characters – they have a lot of lines to learn and most are enormously convincing in their roles. You will definitely come away from Queen Anne with a lot of historical knowledge if not a totally fulfilling theatrical treat.
Queen Anne is playing at the Lace Market Theatre until Saturday 18th June.