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.

The Tempest at the Barbican review ****

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The Tempest

Barbican Theatre, 27th July 2017

Now I would watch Simon Russell Beale read the telephone directory. Particular past favourites of mine include a Brechtian Galileo, a Face in the Alchemist, alongside Alex Jennings and Lesley Manville, his Stalin in Collaborators, a Timon in the Hytner production, which persuaded me this is a greatish play, and his persuasive Lear. So his return to the RSC after a couple of decades was always going to be an event, particularly in the role of everybody’s favourite grumpy polymath/magician Prospero. The Tempest is not my favourite Shakespeare though I thoroughly enjoyed the all female Phyllida Lloyd Donmar production so maybe I am slowly coming round.

Anyway this production directed by Gregory Doran had secured very good if not outstanding reviews from its Stratford run so, one way or another, it had to be seen, Initially I plumped for the cinema option figuring this might prove a better way to soak in the technology on show. However, after a mix up with tickets and me throwing a tantrum (don’t ask), I missed out. So off to the Barbican it was.

Much has been made of the digital technology conjured up by Intel and Imaginarium Studios which has been used to conjure a real-time, holographic avatar of the Ariel played by a physically graceful Mark Quartley. Well there is no doubt this is an impressive spectacle, especially when combined with the striking designs of Simon Brimson Lewis, a set with a shipwrecked hulk with overtones of whale skeleton, and the dramatic lighting of Simon Spencer. And by and large it augments rather than supplants the words of the Bard notably around the storms, imagined drownings and some very dangerous dogs. In particular the masque created for the marriage of Ferdinand (an earnest Daniel Easton) and Miranda (a surprisingly worldly Jenny Rainsford) was spell binding with some beautiful singing from Samantha Hay, Jennifer Witton and Elly Condron and landscape projections which out-garished Hockney.

But the Tempest for me is a play of subtle shifts and meanings and sometimes all the gubbins on show (including the loudish soundscape conjured up by Jeremy Dunn and Andrew Franks) did just detract a little from the magic Shakespeare conjured up through, er, the magic of words. Once you cut out the comedy interludes supplied by Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano (with Joe Dixon, Simon Trinder and James Hayes respectively suitably broad) and the perfidy of the human aristos, you are left with tales of love and forgiveness (father-daughter, Miranda/Ferdinand, Prospero and pretty much everyone else on the Island). For these lessons to, er, work their magic sometimes needs a bit of peace and quiet. Which is why the last 10 minutes or so of this production, largely SRB speaking the verse in a pool of light, turned out to be the most satisfying, and moving.

A fine addition then to the panoply of big name Tempests and well worth a view (there are plenty of tickets left for the remaining performances). But also a reminder that, at the end of it all, it s the text that matters.