Power and betrayal are the two combustible forces that fuel the drama of Natalie Abrahami’s RSC production of Queen Anne, written by Helen Edmundson which has transformed from the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
It is 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.
Indeed in her twelve-year reign, Anne has to contend with deeply insoluble divisions in the newly united, United Kingdom. There was Catholic versus Protestant there was the dying Stuart dynasty versus European families entering royalty, and there was the sudden upsurge of Parliament getting to grips with a fledgling democracy that was to keep a monarch firmly in his box with the Bill of Rights.
Edmundson manages to shed light on a little known period in history depicting the Queen as a tormented innocent, swayed this way and that, who confides in her friends, as well as the Leader of the House, her Chancellor and the Duke of Marlborough, who is abroad, fighting both France and Spain. Like Anne, the audience is never sure just who is honest and who is contemptible. All seem Venal, greedy and shifty as they swirl around the monarch, who has also to contend with the death of more than a dozen of her children.
While the play succeeds as a vision of political intrigues and the pressure of monarchy, it is encumbered by a lot of plodding expositions with characters often narrating events rather than enacting them. Furthermore, I found the first half rather slow moving and burdened by some clunky dialogue. But after the interval, the piece picks up considerably as the story gathers momentum and becomes more involving.
Emma Cunniffe gives a finely judged performance as the vulnerable, gout-ridden Anne, torn between friendship and duty, and in desperate thrall to the conniving and ruthless Duchess of Marlborough. Whereas Anne seeks a deep and intimate friendship, Sarah desires only political advancement for herself and her military hero husband John. Romola Garai is equally impressive as the coldly calculating Sarah, Conveying the pride and anger of a woman perpetually disappointed by life. Solid support comes from Hywel Morgan as Anne’s husband, Prince George of Denmark, Dave Fishley as King William III, Chu Omambala as Sarah’s formidable husband, the Duke of Marlborough and James Garnon as Robert Harley, speaker of the Commons, a Tory master of spin and seductive rhetoric.
The play also has a touch of satire, with the ribald goings-on in the Inns of Court lampooned by giant puppets, while the lavish costumes and wigs, subdued lighting and oak-panelled doors, through which the characters appear and disappear, add much to the period flavour of the piece.
Showing at the Theatre Royal HaymarketLast modified: April 6, 2021