I should start with a confession of pretentiousness and ignorance. There has been more than one occasion in my life where I have gestured vaguely at some prettily arranged bricks and mortar and gone: “Ah yes… mumble mumble… Queen Anne, mumble mumble.” And it doesn’t stop at pompous babblings on the street. I once wrote a review confidently referring to the perfect Queen Anne style house that formed the backdrop of the set design. Despite this, it only occurred to me on Monday night that I actually had no idea whatsoever who ‘Queen Anne’ was or when she existed. Truth be told, she might as well have been a house in my sloppy grasp of English history.
If, however, you’re looking to fill in a gaping mental void then Helen Edmundson’s Queen Anne isn’t the best crib sheet to reach for. As a piece of theatre its strongest moments are in depicting the private rather than the political. There are, particularly in the second half, comments made about the Whigs or ‘The Pretender’, and Britain’s sending its young men off in droves to be killed with the aim of preventing the darned Catholics taking over, but the nucleus of the drama is the relationship between two women: Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill (Duchess of Marlborough).
The first glimpse of Emma Cunniffe as the ill monarch is offered via a hugely swollen, sore-covered leg emerging from between the bed curtains. Her physicality is a continual burden, both in the claims individuals and society place on it as a failing baby-making machine and in being a constant source of agony. Queen Anne had seventeen pregnancies. All but one ended in miscarriage, stillbirth or very early deaths. Her only son to survive past infancy died aged 11. Cunniffe drags herself around the stage from chair to waiting chair with one arm attached as though by Velcro to her lower midriff. Whether this is a gesture resulting from a location of physical pain, or an unconscious impulse, there are moments where it is painful just to watch her.
And yet, as my friend said, “I feel very sorry for Anne – when she is offstage.” One of the cleverest features of Edmundson’s play is how it asks the audience to take a view on a very unwell woman in a position of power. Anne, in many ways so deserving of sympathy, is at times gratingly infantile. Despite insisting that she is perennially ill-equipped to understand or answer any question of importance put to her during the first half of the play, she is nonetheless sharply demanding when it benefits her. The presence of the no-nonsense Duchess Marlborough (Romola Garai), striding into the room and swiftly sorting out the Queen’s attendance at Parliament, seemed a very welcome one. However, I felt guilty thinking so – not just because the publicised premise of the play is the manipulation of a monarch by a power-crazed confidant, but because I wanted to be kind towards the woman whose every step caused her visible pain.
My husband knows me as someone with a dreadful bedside manner. I don’t think I’ve ever fluffed a pillow and my medical approach is underpinned by the assumption that a whiskey and a few paracetamol ‘will probably sort you out’. Yet I think this confusion of sympathies extends further than a personal defect of character. Caring for the sick is frequently a battle between sympathy and frustration. And mixed up in this is guilt. Guilt at not feeling enough sympathy (not being a selfless Florence Nightingale) and guilt at having to supress the urge to snap or shout at the other person. I wish I hadn’t thought: “Anne, you have an incredibly important job to do and if you can’t do it, then step aside.” The awful truth is that I did.
It’s these humanised elements, then, that are the most intriguing. Post-interval, the absence of scenes containing both characters is notable as a loss. Along with Anne’s ill-health, it is her love for Sarah that produces the play’s more affecting moments. The saddest thing is not that their relationship breaks down, it’s that it does so at the point where the women should be able to provide the most solace for each other. Grief, though, does unpredictable things, and although now both mourning their children, it’s at this point that the irreparable rupture occurs.
Maybe creating a play about a Queen rather than a King unconsciously produces a focus on their personal life and not, for example, military strategy. Yet whilst it doesn’t make up for gaps in the National Curriculum, Edmundson’s play at least means I now see Queen Anne as less of a house and more of a human.
Queen Anne is on at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 30 September 2017. Click here for more details.