Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, London ****
Review of perf seen Dec 30, 2019. Runs 1hr 30 mins without interval
My goodness, that Ella Hickson doesn’t let the grass grow under her feet for long.
Having circled the globe in time and space with Oil (2016) and the history of fossil fuel, taken on creativity with The Writer (2018), here she is again in winning form playfully, even mischievously with serious intent, re-examining the legacy of that role model to end all female role models, Elizabeth I.
The credit for Swive – an old English term covering naughtiness and agricultural labouring – encompasses, however, two names – Hickson’s with director Natalie Abrahami.
Abrahami it was who directed a simply wrenching production in Chichester last year about Quakerism, The Meeting. So putting these two talents together was bound to produce something a bit special and so it proves.
Whilst Hickson’s imagination knows no bounds, Abrahami’s directorial touch is distinguished by subtlety with high visual flair.
Both are in evidence with Hickson’s play which dodges and jumps around well known aspects of Elizabeth’s `history’ mixed with her own vivid 21st century influenced imaginings to produce a portrait of how the young princess, a teenager who knew at first hand the cost of how easily personal pleasure slewed into political danger and the ultimate punishment of death, survived it all.
Within the candlelit ambience of the Wanamaker indoor theatre, Abrahami makes Hickson’s text and Elizabeth’s story pulsate with the sound of a young woman for whom insecurity runs in every fibre of her being.
`Do not take me in darkness’, the young Princess cries at one point when consigned to the Tower and the candles of the Wanamaker have all been extinguished – a shuddering, fantastically resonant moment demonstrating the young Elizabeth’s nightly and daily nightmare, born of her everyday existence, made viscerally, dramatically graphic.
From the very beginning we are told, do not be lulled into a false sense of security as the theatre’s gilded backcloth is torn away to reveal plain plywood. `This theatre is only five years old’, declares one character.
Very much, a woman’s story, Swive is a far cry from a David Storey version of Elizabeth’s England.
In line with today’s feminism, Swive reclaims Elizabeth as a woman with all the vulnerabilities of her sex as she strove to overcome the patriarchal power base into which she was born, be it with her attractiveness (possible sexual harassment from her stepfather, Thomas Seymour), the necessity of child-bearing or her passion in maturity, for Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.
The fascination and delight of Hickson’s play however comes not only from her refreshing re-alignment with its constant contemporary implications, but from the manner of its delivery.
Elizabeth’s progress throughout is echoed through parallel voices, be it Catherine Parr, Elizabeth’s guardian and her father’s last wife, the Catholic Queen, Mary Tudor, great with phantom child, or the washerwoman carrying bundles of Elizabeth’s monthly blood-stained sheets.
Nina Cassell and Abigail Cruttenden between them cross and criss-cross these roles with Cassell as the young Princess and Cruttenden the later Queen finding her way through the storms of statehood and governance, aided sometimes by Michael Gould’s William Cecil, her First Secretary, and as often distracted by Colin Tierney as first Seymour then Dudley. All four play Hickson’s sharp text with impressive precision.
Ninety minutes speeds by in this hermetic, closeted communal embrace until at the last, theatrical reality is once again reasserted with a stroke of brilliance. Hickson has conjoined two rival elements assigned to Elizabeth for her success in surviving: the first is `witchery’, the second `divinity’, as a God-appointed sovereign.
In a transformative moment, both actresses revert back to plain black tights and tops. Divinity, witchery, theatre. Theatre uses all of these to create its own history, through the power of the collective imagination.
`She was her own safety’, declares Cruttenden finally. `Blackout’.
Great. Witty, succinct, to the point, Hickson and Abrahami make a perfect combination. Not a word too many, not a gesture too enforced – though Abrahami might take note that the occasional action at the side of the stage is completely obscured to those of us `up top’!!
But otherwise, and at all other points, simply delicious.
A new play created by Ella Hickson and Natalie Abrahami
Princess Elizabeth/Washerwoman/Katherine Grey: Nina Cassells
Queen Elizabeth 1/Catherine Parr/Mary Tudor: Abigail Cruttenden
William Cecil: Michael Gould
Thomas Seymour/Robert Dudley: Colin Tierney
Woodwind: Sophie Creaner
Cello: Maddie Cutter
Musical Director/Percussion: Zands Duggan
Director: Natalie Abrahami
Designer: Ben Stones
Composer: Angus MacRae
Associate Director: Anthony Lau
Movement Director: Anna Morrissey
Voice: Emma Woodvine
Globe Associate – Movement: Glynn McDonald
Globe Associate – Text: Giles Block
Head of Voice: Tess Dignan
Associate Movement Director – Siân Williams
Costume Supervisor: Sian Harris
World premiere of Swive at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe, Southwark, London, Dec 6, 2019
Runs to Feb 15, 2020.
Review published on this site, Dec 31, 2019