Crippled, grieving, and the laughing stock of England. This is how the Princess Anne, heir to the English throne, begins her story in Helen Edmundson’s play Queen Anne, now showing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Emma Cunliffe’s impressive portrayal of the woman who didn’t want to be Queen never falters in communicating Anne’s jittery weakness. Even when wearing the purple robe of state, with orb and sceptre in hand, she hunches visibly, and talks to her counsellors with a nervous high-strung voice. Rising like a phoenix from a vicious smear campaign orchestrated by her closest confidante in the latter half of the play, the central paranoiac element of Anne Stuart’s character never leaves Cunliffe’s performance. Rather, as the Duke of Marlborough tells us, “she has become the Queen.” Though she is personally feeble, Anne begins to fulfil the essentially performative role of the English monarch that was emerging in the years following the Glorious Revolution.
Queen Anne is set during a period of momentous change in British government and society. This is most obviously demonstrated in the title character’s acceptance of her role as an increasingly apolitical head of state, the basis of our modern constitutional monarchy. But it is also shown in characters such as Robert Harley, Speaker of the Commons and later Lord Treasurer. Though played with a particularly comedic flair by James Garnon, his character offers more than comic relief. Harley is the archetypal modern politician, responding to almost all questions from the Queen with his trademark answer “yes, no, maybe.” There were also some unintentional laughs elicited from the audience by Chu Omambala’s Duke of Marlborough. He plays England’s chief soldier with such a declamatory staccato that he was almost chewing up the scenery. Nevertheless, he is given some of the play’s great lines by Edmundson. After a century of civil war, republicanism, a decadent restoration, and another revolution, Marlborough sums up the mood of his time with the words: “These Stuarts have outlived their use.”
Edmundson’s play is probably best described as a court drama. Though the Queen and her entourage at one point move from St. James’ Palace to Kensington, the action never leaves London, and almost all of the characters are aristocrats and members of the elite; there are, for example, some notable cameos from Jonathan Swift (Jonny Glynn) and Daniel Defoe (Carl Prekopp). But Edmundson gives us a glimpse of the real England through the play’s musical interludes. They illustrate the extent to which the ‘majesty’ of the English monarch had been debased throughout the preceding Seventeenth century. We begin with a pantomime depiction of Princess Anne and her husband Prince George copulating, followed by a phantom pregnancy where instead of bearing a child, the parody Anne passes wind. This shocking insult to the heir apparent is made particularly cruel by the context of Anne’s many miscarriages, and the recent death of her eleven year old son William. The revellers’ satirical songs later play a central role in a crisis of Anne’s reign, when she stands accused of “passionate femininity” with a handmaiden. The playwright here demonstrates the increasing power of satire and unfavourable public opinion over the royal family itself. We see the origins of the modern smear campaign acted out for us on stage, with strong undertones of Diana Spencer. The story of the satirists comes full circle towards the play’s close, as they parade effigies of the Marlboroughs and ceremonially hang them, pre-empting the decline of the couple’s fortunes. At the end though, we are still left pondering that old question that haunts the issue of tabloid propaganda today; do they shape opinion or simply reflect it?
The Queen learns to rise above the politicking, and accepts her situation. And though that might seem a little passive of her, there was perhaps no greater struggle than for a monarch at this time, shrouded in the language of divine right and magnificence, to accept their place as one cog in the machinery of the modern state. While earlier Anne had complained about the divisive language of ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’, she embraces both parties as servants of the Crown, remaining informed and dutiful no matter what the political stripes of her government were. Perhaps Anne truly becomes the Queen when she decides to sacrifice her oldest and most intimate friendship with the power-hungry Countess Marlborough for the sake of the realm. This reminded me of Peter Morgan’s The Crown, where Elizabeth II faces similar tribulations early in her reign. But whereas Queen Elizabeth only learnt to accept precedent, Queen Anne shaped it. Queen Anne is, above all, a play that shows us our political inheritance.
Queen Anne, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, until 30 September.