Queen Anne, a new play from Helen Edmundson tells the story of the relationship between the Queen and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough from the time Anne becomes Queen on the death of William III in 1702 to the point when that relationship ends. It encompasses Anne’s political alliance with the Speaker of the Commons, James Garnon as he and his fellow Tory politicians battle their political opponents, the Whigs and the Act of Union which made England and Scotland into a single kingdom called Great Britain. The play also tells the story of the war of the Spanish Succession and the leadership of the Army by Sarah Churchill’s husband John, Duke of Marlborough as well as touching on the on-going influence of the Protestant church over that of the Roman Catholic and the various power struggles within the royal court.
If that sounds like a dull, dry history lecture than at times that’s what Queen Anne felt like. At nearly three hours long (including an interval), for the most part it seemed that the entertainment element of the play had been sacrificed to tell us about what went on at Queen Anne’s court over three hundred years ago.
This was also a time of great political satire and both Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift feature heavily as does the infamous satirist and MP of the time (what a wonderful combination!) Arthur Maynwaring. There are several satirical songs that punctuate the play and liven up proceedings no end, that lampoon both Anne and Sarah including a music hall version of “The Grand Old Duke Of York” which just serve to highlight the dullness of the rest of the play.
There’s quite a lot of resonance with modern-day politics such as England’s relationship with Scotland, the Tories in power, our relationship with Europe, the stock market going up and down and a lot of fake news!
As we have come to expect from an RSC production, the performances on the most part were excellent. The set is whilst simple comprising of large wood panelled walls, makes excellent use of a number of doors set in the walls (which opened as if by magic) and a large four-poster bed which at times took centre stage. The costumes and wigs were superb giving the production a sumptuous, period feel as befits the royal court of a queen.
Romola Garai as Sarah is excellent throughout as her relationship with the Queen goes rapidly downhill as she makes mistake after mistake. However, Emma Cunliffe’s performance as Anne left me cold. It lacked any depth and seemed to a bit one note – it just wasn’t convincing and paled in comparison to Garai’s emotional rollercoaster. Richard Hope gave great gravitas to Sydney Godolphin, the Lord Chancellor and Anne’s closest advisor. There were also fine performances from Chu Omambala as John Churchill and Michael Fenton Stevens as Anne’s physician John Radcliffe as well as Beth Park as Abigail Hill who goes from a simple maidservant to Anne’s inner sanctum.
The main problem with Queen Anne for me is its innate coldness. Apart from a couple of moments at the end where Sarah realises that her relationship with Anne is over and finally shows true emotion, there is no heart and no-one to empathise with. This is a long and sometime tedious evening at the theatre that enlightens but doesn’t enrich. As one character remarks to another towards the end “By Jove, it’s long” and by Jove he’s right!
Review by Alan Fitter
1702. William III is on the throne and England is on the verge of war.
Princess Anne is soon to become Queen, and her advisors vie for influence over the future monarch. Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, a close friend with whom Anne has an intensely personal relationship, begins to exert increasing pressure as she pursues her own designs on power.
Contending with deceit and blackmail, Anne must decide where her allegiances lie, and whether to sacrifice her closest relationships for the sake of the country.
Emma Cunniffe (The Crucible, Great Expectations) returns as Queen Anne and is joined by Romola Garai (Suffragette, The Hour) as Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough in Helen Edmundson’s (The Heresy of Love) gripping play that reveals the corruption and intrigue at the heart of the court. Queen Anne is directed by Natalie Abrahami (Happy Days) and plays for a strictly limited thirteen week season after a sold-out run at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Theatre Royal Haymarket
18 Suffolk Street, London, SW1Y 4HT