If I was to ask you to name all the kings and queens of England, I wonder how far you would be able to go. I set myself this task and was quite proud of my ability to remember this stuff from school – even though that type of teaching now considered passe. However, I did forget one and that particular queen is the subject of a play by Helen Edmundson at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. The monarch in question? Queen Anne.
England in the late 17th and early 18th Century was at a turning point. Parliament was exerting its power. First, by ridding the country of the Catholic King James II and then basically inviting William of Orange to take over the country in James’ place. Then by deciding who should replace King William III (Dave Fishley) as monarch. As the King gets closer to death, the lady waiting in the wings, Princess Anne (Emma Cunniffe) prepares for her new role. Anne is a shy retiring figure who, rather than exuding royal authority, had a tendency to be ‘guided’ by her friends. This is particularly true of the princess’s closest friend and confident Sarah Churchill (Romola Garai) and her husband the celebrated soldier John (Chu Omambala). Both were aligned to the Whig (Liberal) party and both, along with the Lord Chancellor, Sydney Godolphin (Richard Hope) hope to ensure the new Queen supports the right party and policies. The Churchill’s prosper being raised to the ranks of the aristocracy as the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough given them more power, prestige and, they hope, control over the new Queen. But Anne is not as mild-mannered and vulnerable as some might think and as she accedes to the throne, she begins to fully understand the power she wields as a constitutional monarch and finds her own voice politically, much to the dismay of her former favourites.
Queen Anne is an interesting production in many ways. The writing, acting, and staging are all really good and yet, for me, it just didn’t really work. At nearly three hours, including interval, it felt overly long with characters introduced that really didn’t do a lot. For example, Abigail Hill (Beth Park) ended the first act with a declaration of war between her and her cousin the Duchess of Marlborough but nothing really comes of it apart from Abigail marrying well and her husband getting knighted. There are a few ‘red herrings’ to the plot like this which is slightly frustrating as the central story has the potential to be quite fascinating.
Emma Cunniffe and Romola Garai are individually great in their roles as Anne and Sarah respectively. Unfortunately, I didn’t really feel any chemistry between the two characters. Having been friends since childhood, you would have expected there to be something between them but it didn’t really come across to me. And again, I thought there was a bit of a missed opportunity in looking at the two ladies. From the writing, I got the impression that Anne’s feelings for Sarah were deeper than just friendship, possibly a form of forbidden love but this was never really explored at all, and you ended up with two women who on the surface were friends but underneath seemed pretty frustrated with each other most of the time.
There were some elements I really enjoyed, such the bawdy songs in the club – I would love to know if they were written for the play or based on real songs of the time, and the historical background, where a cheaply printed pamphlet could go ‘viral’ overnight and ruin a reputation before breakfast. It was nice having actual musicians playing and their sound felt pretty authentic, as did Hannah Clark’s costumes. Natalie Abraham directs with style and most of the movements were very much of that early 18th-century era, although I was surprised how many times characters turned their back on the Queen to exit – something that would, I believe, have been a definite no-no in the court at that time.
Overall then, Queen Anne didn’t really work for me. I thought there was plenty of potential – and indeed the programme has some fascinating facts about the events covered in the play – but the production never quite met it. The writing, staging, and acting were really great but, for me, there was definitely a spark of something missing.
Review by Terry Eastham
1702. William III is on the throne and England is on the verge of war.
Princess Anne is soon to become Queen, and her advisors vie for influence over the future monarch. Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, a close friend with whom Anne has an intensely personal relationship, begins to exert increasing pressure as she pursues her own designs on power.
Contending with deceit and blackmail, Anne must decide where her allegiances lie, and whether to sacrifice her closest relationships for the sake of the country.
Emma Cunniffe (The Crucible, Great Expectations) returns as Queen Anne and is joined by Romola Garai (Suffragette, The Hour) as Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough in Helen Edmundson’s (The Heresy of Love) gripping play that reveals the corruption and intrigue at the heart of the court. Queen Anne is directed by Natalie Abrahami (Happy Days) and plays for a strictly limited thirteen week season after a sold-out run at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
@RSCQueenAnne / #RSCQueenAnne
Theatre Royal Haymarket
18 Suffolk Street, London, SW1Y 4HT