I consider myself something of a connoisseur of costumed reenactments. It is a source of great delight to me to wander past some actors half-improvising on the grounds of a historic property, riffing with onlookers and providing a potted history of the castle’s most famous events. Historic Royal Palaces would seem to be upping the ante for this admittedly somewhat tacky genre by commissioning Les Enfants Terribles to take over Kensington Palace after hours for United Queendom, an immersive look at the early Georgian royal court. But looking at it as either theatre critic or as slightly embarrassed lover of kitschy historical reenactment, the result falls short.
“Do you know anything about George II?” a man next to me murmured to his companion after we’d been ushered into a reception room for wine and mingling with some of the costumed company. It’s King George II’s birthday party, and we are to be immersed in the festivities—though it’s less immersion than wandering around Kensington Palace having things explained to us. The audience’s role in the festivities is never defined in-world, and there’s not even the pretence that we have the power to change or even directly interact with the proceedings.
I don’t think many people know much about George II. This doesn’t necessarily matter, except United Queendom takes a mythbusting stance, determined to prove that Queen Caroline was more effective and influential than her husband. All well and good, but with no standing assumptions to demolish, the defensive crouch feels unnecessary and confusing. The evening’s series of vignettes build to a confrontation between Queen Caroline and the King’s mistress, Henrietta Howard, who free themselves from patriarchal history in a scene that would have been better as premise than climax. As it is, it feels like they are railing against a status quo that we barely understand, and thus becomes a generic sense of Oppressed Women In History—even though we’ve spent the evening being given to understand that Caroline was very powerful indeed. I didn’t feel like I fully understood the plot, such as it was, until I went home and read the program.
As an after-hours tour of a corner of Kensington Palace, it’s not half bad. Several members of my group broke off and wandered away from the scenes to look at the paintings and architecture. The costumes, designed by Susan Kulkarni, are vibrant music-festival-Georgian, big wigs and panniers with neon face-paint and accents. It’s a cheeky, punky aesthetic it would have been nice to see extended to the actual content, which at many points sounded no different from the reenactments you might stumble across for free at the other Historical Royal Palaces properties.
It’s almost impossible not to wonder who got in whose way: did Kensington have overly narrow requirements, or did Les Enfants underestimate their hosts and potential audiences? It’s massively disappointing that such a promising collaboration has come to so little, neither seriously expanding on palace narratives and reimagining what site-specific heritage engagement can be, nor creating a compelling piece of immersive theatre.
United Queendom is on until 30th March. More info and tickets here.