Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, 3rd February 2020
I am very partial to the work of Ella Hickson. Precious Little Talent, Boys, Oil, The Writer, ANNA, all have met their, expansive, ambition. Splendid theatre with something powerful to say. With Swive she has collaborated with director Natalie Abrahami, (who marshalled cast and technology so effectively in ANNA), and has alighted on the life of Elizabeth I, not a novel subject for dramatic treatment, in theatre, film or small screen, but still a vital subject for the dissection of women and power. (The SO, BD and LD scored an early collective lockdown viewing success with Josie Rourke’s cinematic debut Mary, Queen of Scots, for example).
The play is small scale, mixing the political with the domestic, and casts two actors, Nina Cassells as the young Princess Elizabeth, (as well as an unnamed Court washerwoman and Lady Katherine Grey) and Abigail Cruttenden as Queen Elizabeth, (as well as her step-mother Catherine Parr, and her predecessor Mary Tudor). In a series of short scenes, enlivened by Ben Stokes’s sly, chip-boarded, candlelit set and teasing costumes, we see how the young and mature Elizabeth negotiate the patronising and miscalculation of significant male influences, Michael Gould as long time adviser and Protestant defender William Cecil, and Colin Tierney as pervy “step” father Thomas Seymour and hubbie-in-waiting Robert Dudley, and how this extraordinary woman was able, ultimately to rise above patriarchal repression and dominate Court and Country.
This is no dry history though. Key events are obliquely referenced but EH’s and NA’s dialogue is more concerned with the how and why of Elizabeth’s tortuous negotiations, rather than the what, before and during her reign. Overcoming her “illegitimacy”, avoiding the fall-out from the association with the scheming Seymour, countering the threats posed by half- brother Teddy VI, and “bloody” half-sister Catholic, Mary Tudor, stringing Dudley along and pimping him out to Scots Mary, claiming the right to be head of the Church as well as the State, despite Cecil and the other geezer’s misgivings, (yet not, if she had married, head of her family), the obsession with her, and others, uberty (yep new word for me). All are cleverly crammed in but the vernacular words the two Elizabeths use to highlight their dilemmas could come from any woman now, asked to justify herself when justification is unjust and unwarranted.
This equivalence of then and now occasionally fails, the perpetual question of the succession for example as Lady Katherine Grey blows her chances, but the message so vital and the delivery so lucid that it doesn’t matter. Abigail Cruttenden is as deliciously peremptory as you might imagine and Nina Cassells masks the young Elizabeth’s decisiveness with a precocious air of vulnerability. Both are adept at turning the arguments of the men back on themselves.
There are some laugh-out loud zingers, the artifice of the SW Playhouse is acknowledged right at the beginning, and even the candle snuffing and relighting seems rhetorical. All this, the 90 minute run time, a paracetamol and and a wisely chosen perch, meant the Tourist’s back remained in fine-(ish) fettle until the trot back to London Bridge. Not quite enough to persuade him that visits to the SWP, and the Globe, should not remain few and far between given the hair-shirt comfort levels, but more than enough to ensure that Ella Hickson’s remains very near the top of his list of favourite contemporary playwrights.