Swan Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Why don’t we know more about Queen Anne (1665-1714)? Squashed between William and Mary and the first of the Hanoverians, George I, Anne seems to have been completely overlooked by history or, at least, our agreed cultural narrative that favours Elizabeth and Victoria over the stout, rather solemn figure who stares out from royal portraiture.
Yet, according to Helen Edmundson’s new and highly sympathetic account, we have much to be grateful for and admire about a queen who suffered a series of appalling miscarriages, was the subject of constant scurrilous pamphlets (this was the season for pamphleteering, Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe being but the most famous of a battalion of street literary hawkers), but nevertheless managed to navigate a steady constitutional course through choppy waters created by constant overseas wars and the competitive factions of Whig and Tory.
Whatever we think today with shifting views on the United Kingdom, it was Anne who also supported and steered into life the Act of Union between England and Scotland.
Edmundson’s latest play – she wrote the excellent The Heresy of Love, also originally premiered at Stratford and buoyantly revived at Shakespeare’s Globe this summer – appears at first a modest affair. Emma Cunniffe’s Anne, in constant mourning for her lost babies, cuts a mournful, mouse-like, diffident figure, permanently at odds with her brother-in-law, William III.
Despite an apparently amiable relationship with her husband, the almost monosyllabic Prince George of Denmark (Hywel Morgan), it is to Natascha McElhone’s dashing, scarlet dressed Sarah Churchill that Anne looks for confidence and support. It seems well documented that Anne harboured a passionate attachment to Sarah, one reciprocated by Churchill only insofar as it suited her advance in influence.
It is the Churchill’s steely ambition, Sarah machinations with Anne and the Court and her husband John’s perpetual warmongering against the Papists of France and Spain that provide rich fodder for Edmundson’s exploration of friendship, loyalty and public duty set against each other.
Anne reluctantly becomes Queen on the death of William and like a chrysalis emerging from its cocoon, we see this unconfident, vulnerable monarch inching her way to independent thought and political wisdom at the cost of her dearest friend.
Director Natalie Abrahami, too, plays to the period’s satirical strengths providing a series of ribald songs (lyrics courtesy of Edmundson) and colourfully outrageous lampoons (the Inns of Court were, it seems, a hotbed of derision and contempt) that serve to emphasise a bubbling street anarchy even as the highest stakes for influence and power are being played out in royal bedchamber and state offices.
Alongside the characters of the Queen and Sarah Churchill, Edmundson injects a delightful cameo for another figure of influence, Robert Harley (Jonathan Broadbent), initially Leader of the Commons who by diplomatically always remaining equivocal, rises to the highest office in the land. Abigail Hill (Beth Park), an impoverished relative of Sarah Churchill, taken into service by Churchill, is another subsidiary character who quietly works her way to the forefront and into the Queen’s affections, much to the Duchess of Marlborough’s displeasure. Cue another battle royal!
All of which adds up to a historical drama fascinating in its insight into a forgotten royal – about whom, I have to confess, I previously knew very little – and how one of England’s grandest families acquired its wealth, status and famous`seat’ – Blenheim – a gift from the Queen to John Churchill (later Marlborough) as his reward for soldiering.
Seen at a preview (and from high up in the Swan’s second gallery, the last ticket available), I could only marvel in the end at Edmundson’s bringing this story to light and wonder at the forces that decided, somewhere down the line, that Queen Anne was not a subject worth remembering or celebrating.
History, it is often said, is written by the victors. Where women are concerned, we know, they are frequently simply ignored, written out of history. Edmundson has done us a great service by resurrecting this forlorn but ultimately victorious spirit.
Queen Anne runs at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon to Jan 23, 2016
Review first published in Londongrip, Dec, 2015