Theatre

Queen Anne and Ti­tus An­dron­i­cus are seen in new lights and Si­mon Rus­sell Beale brings a bril­liant fresh­ness to the role of Pros­pero

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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)

Michael Billing­ton

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

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