Strong Minds, Frail Bodies, Cruel Words: Helen Edmundson’s Queen Anne Back

Queen Anne, Helen Edmundson’s new history play for the Royal Shakespeare Company, opens with a sequence of impersonations. The first Anne we see is a caricature, played by satirist Arthur Maynwaring for the entertainment of Robert Harley’s circle at the Inns of Court. Sporting an uncovered, oversize body-suit that crudely mimics the physiognomy of pregnancy – large breasts, distended stomach – Maynwaring simulates sex with Daniel Defoe (dressed as Anne’s husband, Prince George) before giving birth to nothing more than a fart. Then, in the following scene, and in the more sedate environs of the Marlboroughs’ house at St. Albans, Sarah Churchill mockingly apes the speech and manners of Sophia, Electress of Hanover – to the delight of her husband and son. In this slippery and callous political world, it’s all about role-playing.

Anne, it seems, is the only one not performing. When we finally meet the real Princess and soon-to-be Queen in the third scene, she’s hiding behind the thick burgundy curtains of her bed. She doesn’t want, doesn’t know how to deal with, an audience. Edmundson’s play, directed in this fine production at the Swan Theatre by Natalie Abrahami, pits the public against the private, the intimacies of friendship and personal faith against the theatre of parliament, war, and print. Queen Anne gives us the drama of a monarch who is, in the many senses of the word, undramatic.

Edmundson has grappled with and distilled the bewildering complexities of this period of British political history (1702-1711) into a play of 2½ hours. Yes, much is lost along the way. Gone are the Whig Junto and Harley’s fall in 1708, while the shades-of-grey party-political allegiances of Anne’s reign are reduced to a straightforward Whig versus Tory narrative. But, for the historical pedant, much also remains: the Occasional Conformity controversy of 1703, the Act of Union, the ongoing debate about the cost of war, and most importantly Anne’s determination to rise above the rage of party. Edmundson’s fashioning of a genuinely compelling drama out of such material – and about a shy, sickly, all-too forgotten Queen – is no small achievement.

Important men – in their robes of state, their uniforms, their bluster – do get some attention here. The affectionate and asthmatic Prince George is a bit of a ninny; the Duke of Marlborough strides around lobbying for war and more war or attempting to mollify his wife; Lord Godolphin wants to play the good cop; and a delightfully cartoonish Jonathan Swift is a sort of sneering satirical henchman to Harley. Played with great timing by Jonathan Broadbent, Harley is the most interesting and carefully drawn of this bunch. He prospers thanks to his skill in the rhetoric of circumspection. In modern political parlance, he ‘nudges’ the Queen, always voicing his own opinion by seeming to give an impartial account of another’s. With him the line, “There are those in Parliament who feel – and I hasten to assure you I am not of this opinion…” becomes a refrain.

Ultimately, though, this is a drama about women and it’s great to see a play that features three female leads: Anne; Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough; and Abigail Hill, the royal chambermaid. Edmundson’s Anne is, quite rightly, no Elizabeth I, and she’s all the more interesting for it. A virtual invalid, she combines frailty and determination, reticence and courage in peculiar and convincing ways, and the more others seek to manipulate her the more she pushes back and insists on her own prerogatives. Emma Cunniffe is outstanding in the title role – her movements always short and unsteady, her monotone voice (never raised) shot through with a sense of physical infirmity and unflinching purpose in equal measure.

By contrast, Sarah Churchill, played not always convincingly by Natascha McElhone, is all glamour and energy. She believes she’s got the Queen wrapped around her little finger but their lifelong friendship – a friendship that’s rather one-sided – unravels as Anne tires of Sarah’s perpetual harassment and virulent whiggism. Sarah, who fully expects to be Queen by proxy, is mortified to find her influence over Anne on the wane and equally dismayed by the ascent of her cousin Abigail from chambermaid to lady. Abigail (Beth Park) seems genuinely to care for Anne but she’s no innocent. She and Harley scratch each other’s backs, and her humility is no less strategic or self-serving than his circumspection. Only Anne has no ulterior motive.

Above all, Anne values forms of privacy and intimacy that seem increasing out of date. Only late in the fourth and final act does Cunniffe leave the sanctuary of the rear-stage shadows and approach the front. The royal bed is ever present in her scenes, a constant reminder (like her broken body) of Anne’s particular tragedy: seventeen years, seventeen children, not one survivor. As her sway over the Queen diminishes, Sarah turns away from this painfully intimate, behind closed-doors world and towards a new kind of public, away from the exchange of letters and towards the printed word.

In a key scene, these opposing worlds collide horribly when the malicious Sarah insists on reading Anne a satirical ballad that insinuates the Queen’s sexual desire for Abigail (Sarah claims to have picked this up on the street but in fact has commissioned Maynwaring to write it). Having invaded even the royal bedchamber, it is now print, and not the handwritten epistle or the spoken vow, which mediates relationships between people and agencies. Swift is the harbinger of this new way of doing things, and we never see him without some fresh-from-the-press broadside or pamphlet in his hand. At the close of the play it’s his Conduct of the Allies that brings Marlborough tumbling down. The printing press now makes politics tick.

In this way, the most theatrically engaging scenes in Queen Anne are those that take place at the Inns of Court, all of which involve the elaborate performance of a freshly published satirical song. This is a mock court, the Eastcheap of Edmundson’s play, the inverse of the sterile, sickly atmosphere of Anne’s Palace. After the opening scene we return twice more to Harley’s residence to see, first, the staging of a song in which Maynwaring’s mock Anne becomes a strung puppet and, later, the parading of effigies of the Marlboroughs in a further rabidly anti-royal number.

As Abrahami’s direction recognizes, Edmundson’s drama stages the story of print by repeatedly correlating it with the carnivalesque. Again and again, she transposes the printed page into its own, irrepressible, vibrantly musical kind of theatre. Print, especially print satire, steals the show. It’s the hidden and most compelling protagonist of this history play. Protagonist but no hero. Because in the end we’re left with a profound sense not just of its power but also of its potential cruelty. More even than the callous egoists that circle around the Queen, it is print, Edmundson seems to tell us, that shows no mercy.

Queen Anne is at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon until the 23rd of January 2016.