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David Scotland

Review: QUEEN ANNE at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

Queen Anne RSC The Royal Family has often been a source of material for playwrights. It could be suggested that Shakespeare started the craze in 1590 with his three part depiction of Henry VI. His success with this and other tellings of Kings has inspired generations since to follow suit. One of the most recent additions to this lineage was our current monarch Elizabeth II when she became the subject of Peter Morgan’s 2013 play The Audience. Even her son Prince Charles has had his reign foretold in the satirical King Charles III written by Mike Bartlett and recently adapted for the BBC.

With this in mind it seems long overdue that Queen Anne’s reign should be given dramatic treatment. After all her time on the throne saw the passing of the Act of Union which first united England and Scotland under the new title Great Britain. She also oversaw and was instrumental in the end of England’s role in the War of the Spanish Succession. However these events are merely the backdrop for the play she is now subject of.

Instead, Helen Edmundson’s Queen Anne places focus on her passionate friendship with Sarah Churchill, the strong minded and ambitious wife of army officer John Churchill. Having been close to the Princess from an early age, Sarah has Anne’s ear. Upon her accession to the throne the Churchills quickly become powerful political figures. But as Sarah’s ambition for money, titles and power grows, cracks start to show in the thin veil of compassion she shows Anne and she risks pushing the Queen into the hands of her political nemesis, speaker of the house of commons Robert Harley.

Although performed by the RSC (the play was originally part of the 2015-16 season at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-avon) this play is very much a modern telling. There are great similarities between the running of politics in the 18th Century and the running of politics today and Edmundson’s text is dripping with wry humour. At the time of Anne’s reign political satire was rife in the form of pamphlets, prints and songs and Edmundson takes advantage of this in four acerbic musical numbers in which the chorus set the political climate at key stages of the narrative.

Under the direction of Natalie Abrahami, the play also provides an outlet for two superb performances; Emma Cunniffe as Anne and in particular Romola Garai as Sarah Churchill. Garai’s Sarah is truly machiavellian and has the audience eating out of her hands throughout.

In an industry that is striving to achieve equality and diversity it is encouraging that this play built around two powerful female characters has also been written and directed by women; something that would have surely amused Queen Anne greatly.

Queen Anne runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 30th September.

Queen Anne