Wings at the Young Vic review ****

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Wings

Young Vic Theatre, 18th October 2017

Turns out there are a few tickets left for the final week or so of Wings. You could do worse than snapping one up. I cannot pretend it is a masterpiece, but the performance of the wonderful Juliet Stevenson, under the direction of Natalie Abrahami and with the design of Michael Levine, is astonishing.

Ms Stevenson plays Emily Stilson, whose world has been shattered by a stroke which renders time, place, speech, language and thought meaningless. We see her move from a world of utter incomprehension, hers and those around her, through to partial recovery. The rest of the cast play the various members of the medical team and other stroke victims, though they don’t have much to play with in Arthur Kopit’s script. Mrs Stilson had been a stunt pilot who had stepped out on to the wings of planes in the past and it is this motif than informs the play and production. From the opening, and throughout the 70 minutes of the performance, Juliet Stevenson is rigged up to a harness which allows her to fly above and around the stage. She soars, she twists, she turns, she tumbles, she occasionally comes to the ground. It really is the most remarkable physical tour de force, devised by movement director Anna Morrissey and a team from Freedom Flying. At the same time as delivering this bravura feat, Ms Stevenson delivers a notable vocal performance as she captures Mrs Stilson’s fractured Waspish speech and lapses of memory. She certainly more than earns her fee here.

This striking visual conceit certainly captures the dislocation between what is going on internally in Mrs Stilson’s brain and what is visible to the external world. As an academic theatrical document of the impact of a stroke I am hard pressed to see how it might be improved. The audience moves along a path from total disorientation, through to a qualified understanding of what has happened to our leading character. Yet we don’t really get to see the person that lies beneath the condition. We make no real emotional connection to her. This was originally a radio play and I am guessing the stage version normally involves a rather more static lead. That could be quite wearing I fear.

This production however wins out through the spectacular visuals and the stunning craft of Juliet Stevenson. Whenever, and wherever, she is on stage your eye and ear are drawn to her. She was a tactile Gertrude in Robert Icke’s revelatory Hamlet and a stern Elizabeth in the same director’s Mary Stuart, but in this play, and as Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days at this venue a couple of years ago, she is peerless. And fearless.

I had a notion the other day that we Brits, wherever we come from, might be better governed by a matriarchy of our greatest stage actresses. Juliet Stevenson would be Foreign Secretary. Surely an improvement on the clown who currently occupies the seat.

Queen Anne at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review ***

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Queen Anne

Theatre Royal Haymarket, 3rd August 2017

Tricky customers history plays. How to introduce the characters and explain events without slackening the dramatic pace. It’s OK if your Will Shakespeare. He wrote the history. Or at least someone before him wrote something, which he then purloined and turned it into a great work of art with those words, oh those beautiful words. And ever since people have half-believed his stories were based on solid facts. Mind you historical “facts” are a slippery business anyway. Always shaped by the narrator. I’m with the master of wry Alan Bennett: “History is just one f*cking thing after another”. A quote he stole in any event from a distinguished academic, though no-one seems sure which prof. said it first. See what I mean.

Anyway the writer of Queen Anne, Helen Edmundson opts for the direct approach to exposition with characters bluntly announcing their identity and, when necessary, the unfolding key events. This ensures that we the audience can follow the action without the need for intensive background reading but it does mean the first third of the play feels a little disjointed. However once the dramatis personae are established and the various themes laid out we then get a fine story simply told under the direction of Natalie Abrahami.

The focus of the play is the relationship between Queen Anne (Emma Cunniffe) and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Romola Garai). Anne accedes to the throne on the death of her childless brother in law William III (played in barking king mode by Dave Fishley). You know he was the Dutch fella we invited over with wife Mary to keep the Catholics off the throne. He landed at Brixham, also famous as the birthplace of the Tourist. Hurrah. Here he is. Unusually without a seagull crapping on his head.

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Anyway Anne is a Stuart but the right sort as a Protestant. She is also childless despite seventeen pregnancies, a very sorry state of affairs. Her husband, Prince George of Denmark (Hywel Morgan) is a full on booby. Anne is, initially at least, physically and temperamentally, not really up to the job, so her childhood friend Lady Sarah and her circle of Whigs do their best to manipulate her to their own ends. Our Lady Sarah just happens to be the wife of John Churchill, whose rise to become leader of the Protestant forces across Europe in the War of the Spanish Succession against mighty France and Spain, (after a few false starts), brings recognition, wealth and prestige. This was a turbulent time in English (and with the Act of Union in 1707, British) politics and the play does an excellent job in drawing this out, as Anne seeks to make her mark and shifts allegiances towards the Tories led by Speaker Robert Harley (very well played by James Garnon). This was the era when Britain moved into the first division of European powers (though war proved an expensive business) as the Catholic powers were faced down and as capital was accumulated largely on the back of the slave trade (yes all you proud Brexiteers, these are the foundations your glorious country is built upon).

The tempestuous Lady Sarah gets the hump as her influence on Anne dissipates and gets properly jealous of Abigail Hill (played by Beth Park) another scheming ingenue who comes from nothing to become the Queen’s new bosom buddy. Sarah leaks some salacious correspondence but this backfires and she, her husband and her circle are debilitated (though the family has seemed to rub along ever since down the centuries – go see Bleinhem Palace is you don’t believe me).

These events are interspersed with some entertaining song and dance routines. This was after all the period which saw the rise of the popular press, in the form of pamphlets, and the emergence of political satire. The great British public, OK the emergent newly rich grasping oligarch Whigs (land alone no longer being the route to power), had put the monarchy back in its box and weren’t above any ruse to slap down the Tories, high Church and sniff out any whiff of Jacobitism.

So a fascinating time, an important monarch who ruled at a pivotal period in England’s history, and a well realised portrait of an intense relationship. Emma Cunniffe and Romola Garai both give very credible performances as Anne and Sarah and there is real passion in parts of the second half. But this is no Mary Stuart and there were times when I was hoping for a few more twists and turns. On the other hand if this is the sort of thing that floats your boat, and on balance I would say it should, then I see there are plenty of tickets left at very attractive prices, so give it a whirl.