It’s a power move to name your play after the Elizabethan word for ‘fuck’. Specifically, ‘swive’ refers to an action done to a woman. A woman can’t swive a man. She gets swived. The power imbalance is encoded in the word.
Ella Hickson’s new play, Swive [Elizabeth], is all about power: sexual power, constitutional power, divine power. It takes a knife to the history of Elizabeth I’s ascent to the throne and cuts out its still-bleeding heart. The focus is on the woman, with fears and desires, behind the quasi-divine personage of queen (in accordance with the divine right of kings, Elizabeth asserts that she has been appointed to rule directly by God). The play considers how a woman managed to wield power within an intensely patriarchal society. At times in the play, this is a sexual power, the young Elizabeth highly consciousness of her looks and the effect she has on men. Yet the play also suggests that this is a dangerous game, as to have sex involves putting oneself under the power of men and to risk death, either in childbirth or being accused of plotting to depose the monarch. Elizabeth, who has become known in history as ‘the virgin queen’, finds safety and power in remaining inviolate. ‘You can’t touch me’, she tells male advisors and courtiers. However, this choice is shown to come at a cost of cutting desire, which she feels to be a weakness, out of herself.
Hickson’s representation of the queen, which focuses on her youth, has a slightly different emphasis from standard historical accounts. As the teenage Elizabeth, the excellent Nina Cassells reveals her vulnerability. She is afraid of the dark, describing how, on the day her mother was executed, she was left with a sleeping nurse and couldn’t reach the candles to light them. When she is imprisoned in the tower, accused of plotting against her, her fear is palpable. Every candle, the sole illumination in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, is blown out, leaving total darkness and the sound of Elizabeth saying her prayers. The scene emphasises how precarious it is to be in line to the throne; Elizabeth, confidently invoking the inevitability of succession, represents a threat to the person already on it. No wonder her brother and sister both imprisoned her. Elizabeth’s vulnerability is cut with a steely intelligence and the self-possession of religious faith. She is precocious and witty, half-flirting with her uncle Thomas Seymour, then indicting him for treason to save herself. While Elizabeth claims innocence and points out that she is only 14, his wife Katherine Seymour is convinced she knows exactly what she’s doing.
The older Elizabeth, played by Abigail Cruttenden, that takes up the throne upon the death of her sister Mary has hardened herself to ruthless imperiousness. One of her first acts as queen is to order her advisor Cecil to rewrite history: she was never in the tower; the rumoured affair with Seymour never happened; she will be remembered as the first sovereign queen. This queen enjoys bear baiting and hunting, ripping out the heart of a deer with her bare hands. What she cannot countenance is marriage. As she tells Cecil, dodging yet another proposal from her sister’s widow Philip of Spain, ‘How can I be a head of a country and yet subject to a husband?’ Why would she give away her power, so fiercely fought for, so precariously held?
Natalie Abrahami’s production is taut and pacey. The dark period dresses, embellished with a jewel-encrusted portrait of the queen herself, impart a sumptuous sense of history. At times, however, the texture of both the play and the production does seem a little thin. With only four actors, only glimpses of the wider political situation can be conveyed. Yet part of the point of Swive is stripping back the history play to its viscera. In the first scene, Abigail Cruttenden, dressed in a fitted black jacket and trousers, with only her hairstyle to indicate who she represents, declares that the sense of history in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – only built a few years ago – is bullshit. The ornate carved backwall of the stage which, just minutes ago, tourists had been taking pictures, is revealed to be a backcloth, ripped down to expose pasteboard behind in Ben Stone’s set. As in The Writer, Hickson achieves the feat of being up front about the illusion-making but still compelling emotional investment and belief. It made me think about the inherent weirdness of historical drama, shaping a narrative from unwieldy material that will always be, in some sense, fake.
Although the play’s use of anachronistic dialogue normally works, I was unconvinced by the encounter between Elizabeth I and a laundress, who challenges her sense of divine right and introduces her to class consciousness (a bit too close to Emilia for me). However, the final image is a gorgeous coming together of some of the ideas explored by the play, namely the power of theatre and the power of religion to transform. The two Elizabeths stand side by side in matching modern dress, pouring out communion wine that turns to blood as it hits the stage.
Swive [Elizabeth] is on at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe till 15th February. More info here.