By Helen Edmundson
Directed by Natalie Abrahami
Venue: Swan Theatre
Date: Wednesday 13th January 2016
We enjoyed seeing this again, and while the performance had certainly come on a bit since November, I felt that overall it was just as good as last time, although Steve would have rated it at 9/10. Natascha McElhone showed a great deal more confidence as Lady Sarah Churchill, and the dialogue may have been even crisper, though as this was the captioned performance, and our seats put us almost in a direct line with the screen, I can’t be sure. One very noticeable change was that the auditorium was packed tonight – almost every seat was filled. The two next to us on the aisle were vacant – more on that story later – but otherwise it was close to a sell-out.
Familiarity usually helps, and tonight I followed the story even better. Having a stronger Sarah Churchill also benefitted the performance, as the play charts the changing relationship between the two women, and I was grateful that Natascha was willing to show the pride and arrogance of Sarah Churchill as well as her intelligence and good looks. From this portrayal, that woman clearly thought she should have been queen, despite her protestations of preferring equality, while the determination of the Churchills and their cronies to wipe out Catholicism altogether sit better with today’s fundamentalist extremism than with their professed egalitarian principles.
Queen Anne herself was an unhappy woman, unhappy in that she never managed to produce a child who lived to adulthood. She was easily put upon by others, and although she was still being manipulated by the end of the play, at least she had more confidence in herself and appeared to feel she had a positive role to play in the life of her nation. The way Sarah Churchill treated her after the death of the Churchill’s son was appalling, and how she imagined that her aggressive and threatening behaviour was going to win the Queen round, I’ll never know – completely delusional.
The use of the satirical songs reminded me that there’s nothing new under the sun – political spin was alive and well several centuries ago, if not several millennia ago, and could be just as vicious and inaccurate as any presidential campaign or Twitter-trolling nowadays.
Nothing much to say in terms of the staging – as far as I could see it was pretty much the same as last time. I did see one or two extra bits today though: after Swift had been talking to Abigail, pretending to be her cousin Harvey, Doctor Radcliff came over and greeted each man by name, so Abigail realised her error. When Sarah Churchill went off stage with Maynwaring to discuss the satirical piece about the Queen, Swift walked past them, turned, looked intrigued and then walked back off after them. It was subtle, but he was presumably the source of Abigail’s information in a later scene when she informed the Queen of the Countess’s activities.
Just one other point about the captions: I noted that they included some entertaining descriptions of the sound effects, such as “[IT’S A VERY LONG FART]” and then, after a pause, “[SHORT, SQUEAKY AFTERBURST]” – this was during the opening song.
After the interval, a young man came and sat in the end seat of our row – we were just off the left walkway again. Unfortunately, he couldn’t sit still for more than about a minute, so we had to endure the effects of his constant movement as he threw himself around in his seat. It says a great deal about this play and production that this behaviour wasn’t nearly as distracting as it might have been. There’s talk of a transfer to London – I do hope it gets it, as this deserves a wider audience.
© 2016 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me