Who, actually, was Queen Anne? Of all the female monarchs this country has had, she must surely be the least well-known – and, I suspect, the least appreciated. We can’t get enough of the Tudors, talking fondly of Elizabeth I (if less so of her half-sister, Bloody Mary) and with respect, if not affection, of Queen Victoria – yet Anne rarely gets a mention despite having been a progressive, involved monarch with wide-ranging interests including theatre, poetry, architecture and music.
That’s one of the reasons I was so keen to see the Theatre Royal Haymarket’s production of Helen Edmundson’s play, ‘Queen Anne’. Very much a female affair, directed by Phyllida Lloyd and featuring three female leads, this is a play which shines a spotlight, sometimes uncomfortably, upon the life & times of the niece of Charles II and goddaughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury. By its end, I definitely felt that I understood this conflicted, vulnerable woman better – and hopefully so did the party of tourists in front of me who, so I learned during the interval, thought they’d come to see a play about Anne Boleyn.
We first meet Anne in 1702, just before she inherits the throne from William III. Rendered weak through ill health and grieving her lost children (tragically, she bore 17 children, only one of whom survived to adulthood), she is querulous – and meek to the point of being irritating. It seems unlikely that she’ll be up to ruling a country – but Anne, as we find out in due course, is nothing if not dutiful.
Unlike, her close friend since childhood, the legendary Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, played by Romola Garai – who makes no bones about her ambition. Immediately upon meeting her, we are sucked into a maelstrom of intrigue, deceit…and, as it turns out, treachery.
The play’s third protagonist is a very different kettle of fish. Deceptively quiet, yet with a core of steel, this is Queen Anne’s new servant – Abigail Hill. Related by blood to the scheming Duchess, but suffering straitened circumstances, she finds herself at court in desperate need of an income. “Hill”, as she is known, has nothing more to look forward to in life than emptying chamber pots – or so it seems.
Three very different women, then, about to embark upon three very different journeys – each compelling in their own way.
One of the reasons I enjoyed this play so much was for the many themes it tackles. Politics, grief, power, sexism, envy…you’d be forgiven for thinking these events were taking place today, not over 300 years ago.
It is friendship, however, which is at the core of ‘Queen Anne’. In fact, watching Anne and Hill’s friendship blossom, as the friendship between Anne and Sarah deteriorates, is one of the most fascinating elements of the play. You may not be altogether surprised to hear that there is more to Hill than meets the eye (this is a drama, after all) and I thought Beth Park evolved her character brilliantly; it’s a memorable performance, all the more so for being completely unshowy.
At the same time, it’s fascinating watching Anne growing in confidence and in stature – and a testament to Emma Cunniffe’s acting abilities. She plays the ailing but determined queen to perfection, taking us on a journey that will long stay in my mind. Interestingly, although Romola Garai, who plays the Duchess, is by far the most well-known of the actresses, it was her performance I found the least compelling. Sarah’s ambition and intelligence are there for all to see, but you gain no insight into why she and Anne were once so close.
And it is Anne, when all is said and done, who retains our sympathies. Ardent republican I might be, but it’s impossible not to feel compassion for this grieving, lonely woman, determined to do the right thing by her people. “I am mother to a nation, now”, she states close to the end of the play – weary, but justifiably proud, too.