Queen Anne and Titus Andronicus are seen in new lights and Simon Russell Beale brings a brilliant freshness to the role of Prospero
Michael Billington finds himself viewing Queen Anne and Titus
Andronicus in new lights and gives five stars to Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero
WHO is this country’s most under-rated monarch? A good case could be made for Queen Anne. Her reign (1702–14) saw the growth of political parties, a momentous Act of Union with Scotland, the acceptance of religious toleration and British ministers dictating peace terms after the War of the Spanish Succession. As G. M. Trevelyan pointed out: ‘England was more powerful under Anne than Elizabeth for the maiden Queen had been content to prevent Philip of Spain from being the arbiter of Europe and had never attempted herself to be the arbitress.’
Her reign was not, however, all honey and roses, as proved by Helen Edmundson’s Queen Anne, which has moved to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, WC2, in an RSC production first seen at Stratford’s Swan. What the play records, with blistering honesty, is the fracturing of the once close relationship between Anne and Sarah Churchill, wife of the Queen’s most potent general.
Anne was besotted by Sarah —they exchanged intimate letters under the names of ‘Mrs Morley’ and ‘Mrs Freeman’—but on Anne’s ascendance to the throne, Sarah recklessly overplays her hand and finds herself supplanted by her cousin who, as Mrs Masham, becomes the trusted confidante.
It’s an extraordinary story. Sarah seems to hold all the cards in that she is glamorous, witty and ambitious. Anne, in contrast, cuts a sad figure: physically unattractive, chronically shy and in constant pain from arthritis and 17 pregnancies, yet the whole point of this fascinating play is that it’s Anne who eventually triumphs, through her inner resolution, her passionate belief in the hereditary principle and her religious faith. What you see is Anne growing in authority to the point where she is able to tell power-seeking politicians: ‘You are all in my service and I am in the service of this land.’
Miss Edmundson has a lot of history to get through, but she sketches in the background with admirable clarity. The real tension rises from the edgy relationship between Sarah and Anne, who, in Natalie Abrahami’s production, are both excellently played.
Romola Garai captures all of Sarah’s slyness, sensuality and increasing testiness with the woman whose favours she once courted. Emma Cunniffe’s Anne is even more impressive in that she shows a woman gradually overcoming her emotional dependence and physical disabilities: her left hand is constantly bent in pain, but you see her standing up to men like Marlborough and Godolphin with increasing authority.
I wasn’t crazy about the musical interludes reminding us that this was the age of scurrilous popular journalism, but there is good support from James Garnon as the wily Robert Harley and Beth Park as the insidious Mrs Masham and you come out of the theatre seeing Queen Anne in a new light.
I would also hope audiences emerge from the RSC’S thrilling production of Titus Andronicus, at Stratford-on-avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre, with new respect for this once-despised tragedy. I’ve never forgotten hearing a critic on the radio describing the play as ‘blood-boltered balderdash’ and there is no denying that it’s filled with physical horrors, including rape, selfmutilation and, as Titus seeks revenge on the Gothic Queen Tamora, throat-slitting and a cannibalistic banquet. However, the play’s subject is not so much violence as the characters’ response to it. How much, it asks, can human beings endure?
Blanche Mcintyre’s production put the play into modern dress, which seems valid as Shakespeare’s story has no basis in history. The most momentous scene comes across with a power that, for me, matches anything in King Lear. David Troughton, superb as a Titus steeped in military tradition, finds that his stoicism at the sight of his ravished daughter, Lavinia (a mem-
I’ve never forgotten hearing a critic describing Titus Andronicus as “blood-boltered balderdash”
orable Hannah Morrish), turns to helplessness as he asks his brother: ‘What shall we do?’
The eventual answer lies in a sadistic revenge plot, but it is the pathos of that central scene, much aided by Patrick Drury’s quiet dignity as Marcus, that I shall remember long after the other details have been forgotten.
In a momentous week for the RSC—IT is, almost single-handedly, keeping the flag of classical theatre flying in this country—gregory Doran’s production of The Tempest has moved from Stratford to the Barbican in London EC2. Initially, it caused excitement through the use of cutting-edge technology to show Mark Quartley’s Ariel co-existing in corporeal and computergenerated form. That is still impressive, as is the video projection of everything from bloodhungry hounds to vistas of cornfilled fields, but, in the end, it’s the human factor that makes theatre memorable. The most remarkable feature is the Prospero of Simon Russell Beale, who has the rare capacity to make every line seem new-minted. In his long explanation to Miranda of their fraught exile, he exudes guilt at his own bookish neglect of power.
‘Our revels now are ended’ loses its usual poetry-recital flavour by becoming a signal of Prospero’s fury at finding Miranda and Ferdinand amorously entwined; the great moment in which Prospero is given a lesson in humanity by Ariel is accompanied by guttural howls as if the former has realised the futility of his long-planned revenge.
This is a great performance that should have audiences besieging the Barbican.
‘Queen Anne’ until September 30 (020–7930 8800); ‘Titus Andronicus’ until September 2 (01789 403493); ‘The Tempest’ until August 18 (020–7638 8891)
Careless whispers: Romola Garai and Emma Cunniffe in Queen Anne
Fresh takes on Titus Andronicus (left) and The Tempest are making us re-evaluate the familiar plays