The Theatreguide.London Review
Haymarket Theatre Summer 2017
Helen Edmundson's drama, here in a Royal Shakespeare Company production transferred from Stratford, is history as soap opera.
There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but in this case it is largely dreary and unoriginal soap opera, with only one central characterisation and performance to really hold you.
Historians generally agree that Queen Anne (reigned 1702-1714) was very strongly influenced, possibly to the extent of being controlled, by her intense friendship with and emotional dependence on Sarah Churchill, wife of the soon-to-be Duke of Marlborough, and that Churchill used her influence for her personal and political agendas.
Edmundson picks up the story with Sarah at the apex of her power and then traces her decline.
With most of her major ambitions achieved she turns her energies toward petty personal jealousies and squabbles that are too obvious for even Anne to miss; her many enemies at court get better at the games she plays, gradually displacing her as Anne's advisors or manipulators; and the Queen herself develops an unexpected backbone and determination to follow her own convictions.
It is only the last of those that turns out to be both surprising and dramatically involving.
Part of the problem is that Romola Garai as Sarah hasn't been given much of a character to play or guided by director Natalie Abrahami to find much to do with her.
Sarah is defined as standard-issue soap opera villainess, straight out of Joan Collins in Dynasty. Such a characterisation can certainly generate some theatrical energy, but in this case it never escapes feeling second-hand and lazy.
And by starting at that peak, indicating whatever the female equivalent would be of a nineteenth-century melodrama villain twirling his moustachios, Garai really has nowhere to go as an actress when Sarah gets desperate and starts expending as much nastiness on personal jealousy of a waiting woman as on her grander political aims.
Too much of what goes on in the play is both petty and undramatic, and while the idea that, for example, years of war and thousands of deaths happened because the general's wife was ambitious may have some historical validity, playwright Edmundson doesn't show us the years of war or thousands of deaths, just the petty behind-the-scenes squabbling.
To give a sense of the crude political world surrounding the central story, Edmundson punctuates the action with the kind of scurrilous parody songs that were the era's equivalent of dirty-joke political cartoons, but they come across more as just desperate attempts to liven up this dreary play.
The real attraction of this production is Emma Cunniffe's constantly surprising multilevelled characterisation of Anne.
The Queen is introduced as a weak-willed and somewhat lumpen figure, a burden to those who have to wheedle, cajole, flatter and manipulate her to get her to do anything. But almost immediately Cunniffe shows some wiliness by using her image of pathetic weakness to manipulate them.
And while the decline of Sarah's power and the growing influence of rival politician James Garnon could be seen as just trading one puppet-master for another, Cunniffe makes clear than Anne is making choices and growing in confidence as she does so.
Eventually qualities that were presumably always there but overlooked by everyone – Anne's love of her country and sense of responsibility to it – take on Elizabethan proportions, giving Cunliffe's Anne a stature and dignity you could not have predicted at the start, and a play that seemed to be about one woman's downfall turns out to really be about another's rise.
Elsewhere, none of the male characters are developed beyond stick figures, and you can tell James Garnon's Harley from the others largely because the actor is shorter than the others.
This is a case of a magician's misdirection being misapplied. Text and production keep telling us to look at Romola Garai's Sarah. But keep your eyes on Anne and on Emma Cunniffe's subtle performance for where the play really is.
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