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 Goat, or Who is Sylvia at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review *****

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The Goat, or Who is Sylvia

Theatre Royal Haymarket, 25th May 2017

I love the theatre. It wasn’t always so. Until relatively recently I confess I didn’t have the time or, more importantly, the patience to really grasp what it was all about. Yes I would see a few plays, and sometimes, if the production delivered, and I wasn’t tired or distracted, I could get lost in the drama for a couple of hours. This was though, an infrequent distraction.

Things have changed. I count myself immensely fortunate that I now have the time, and the means, to indulge what is developing into a passion, nay addiction. Which brings me to Mr Edward Albee. Until the last couple of months I had never seen one of his plays. I was just about cognisant of his existence, and had seen the Burton/Taylor Virginia Woolf film version, but that was it. Now I have seen, in quick succession, the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf production, directed by James MacDonald and with Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill acting their socks off, and now this version of The Goat.

And I can’t wait to see more of his plays. This was really, really good. The set-up is as simple as it is provocative. Martin, our prize winning architect played by Damien Lewis, reveals to best friend Ross (Jason Hughes) that he has fallen in love, emotionally and physically, with a goat. Ross is compelled to tell Martin’s wife Stevie (Sophie Okonedo), who then tells son Billy (Archie Madekwe – what a play to debut in). So we have a man at the top of his game with a fatal flaw who through the action of another is brought crashing down. So this is the classic Greek tragedy updated (apparently the word tragedy comes from “goat ode” in ancient Greek). This forms the structure from which Albee explores the nature of love, its relationship to sex, what society admits is permissible and what is not, and, through an immensely rich text, why this is so,

The ultimate transgression of bestiality is a brilliant device to play with an audience. Obviously it puts us into a very uncomfortable place but also encourages us to laugh, both because some of the dialogue is genuinely funny (Martin and Stevie’s intelligence and liberalism make them very aware), and as a way to deal with the apparent absurdity of Martin’s behaviour. Yet as the other characters come to terms with what Martin is telling them the tragedy of the situation comes through. Hearing and feeling the audience’s reaction to the drama is what makes this an outstanding play.

Damien Lewis perfectly captures Martin’s pedantry and, as he moves from a curiously passive matter-of-factness, to a more impassioned exhortation of what he has done, we get pitched between disgust and sympathy. Jason Hughes as Ross represents a society that cannot, and will not, tolerate his actions. I confess that I think Sophie Okonedo is a brilliant actor – her performance of Margaret in the Hollow Crown is the best thing on the screen which, given the competition here, is saying something. Anyway the way she charts Stevie’s journey from disbelief and incomprehension through anger and vengeance, yet still being reflexive, was riveting.

A play ideally makes you laugh, cry, think and reflect. Inwardly, if not always outwardly. It should also stick with you. This fits the bill for me and, I gather, other theatrical smart-arses. I also gather there have been some highly regarded performances since it premiered in 2002. So maybe the play itself was what bowled me over but I am hard pressed though to see how this production could have been better. A more conflicted Martin from the off maybe – but then that removes his fatal justification on which the reactions hang.

In the hands of director Ian Rickson, nothing gets in the way of the tragi-comedy on the stage. That is as it should be. Next up he is directing Against at the Almeida. I can’t wait.

So if you are like me a couple of years back – a bit too busy to do more than a handful of plays a year – this is what you should do. Book this, there are a few weeks left, the transfer of the Almeida Hamlet at the Harold Pinter Theatre and the transfer of the Royal Court’s The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre. No risks, five star reviews for all of them across the board. Then just wait for the next blockbuster.