Queen Anne shows how gender relations are really power relations

The RSC production leaves you wondering if you have ever seen the real monarch.

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The opening scene of the RSC’s Queen Anne is a good reminder that bitterly misogynistic commentary on female bodies has always found an appreciative audience. A bawdy drinking song lays out the popular vision of the endlessly pregnant royal princess – “Oh George, Oh George, I think I swell/But Annie, my pudding, how can you tell?” – to a room holding Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe and the Commons Speaker Robert Harley.

Soon after, we see Anne herself, following her leg – swollen and bandaged – out of a four poster bed to greet her brother-in-law, King William III. He wants her to come to court, and agree to meet Sophia of Hanover, the next Protestant in line to the throne after her. After all, Anne might still be young, but everyone knows that after so many failed pregnancies, she will never have a surviving heir. She mulishly refuses, repeating three times: “I do not understand such things and therefore cannot comment.”

Emma Cunniffe plays Anne with quiet understatement, perpetually holding her stomach as if she has a stitch. But this never quite feels like her play, because there is another pole trying to draw the world’s axis towards it: Sarah, Countess (later Duchess) of Marlborough. Romola Garai is dazzling. Her hair is bombshell platinum, and she wears either an ice-blue wrap, a red-velvet dress or a ballgown in the particular orange-pink satin that typifies the 17th century. You can easily see why the slow, pious Anne would adore such a butterfly.

What the play does not show you is if there was ever any real affection on Sarah’s side for her friend. In a rejection of “show, don’t tell”, Sarah’s first appearance has her declare both her own brilliance and her contempt for Anne. “A morning in her presence and… I could throw myself from the nearest window, simply to be sure that I’m alive,” she says. Her character has no real arc.

The two women’s first scene together, however, is beautifully scripted and performed. We see both Sarah’s exasperation that her friend doesn’t instantly capitulate to her entreaties to meet Sophia of Hanover, and Anne’s manipulative streak, aided by her growing power. After Sarah says she cannot stay the night, Anne beadily watches her and Marlborough head to the door. The earl takes his leave: “We’ll see you at the court, your highness, tomorrow afternoon.” “Yes,” replies Anne. “Hopefully.” They stop. Anne continues: “I dare say I’ll awaken in the morning and find my resolution gone. Tomorrow will be very hard for me.” And then Sarah has to agree to stay. It’s a compelling demonstration of a common phenomenon, of which the extreme version is Munchausen’s syndrome: being ill or fragile is a way of demanding attention and care from others.

The rest of the play charts Anne’s growing authority and her declining relationship with her favourite. When Anne becomes Queen, she starts listening to a more compliant version of Sarah, a maid called Abigail Masham. The extent of a romantic relationship between Anne and Sarah is ambiguous; but though Sarah might not enjoy kissing the Queen, that doesn’t stop her being jealous if another woman does it. In this way, the play echoes the heterosexual monarch and mistress dynamic, showing how gender relations are really power relations. That this monarch happens to be female doesn’t remove the inequality from a relationship where only one of you has an army.

Not everything works so well. Chu Omambala’s John Churchill seems to be straining to turn all his lines into iambic pentameter, and Beth Park’s Abigail Masham can feel a bit standard issue hard-faced serving wench. And unfortunately, given that its target market must be history nerds, the plot is more enjoyable if you don’t already know the fate of the Churchills.

But there is subtlety and depth here. In their final scene together, Anne is as mulish with Sarah as she once was with King William, repeating another phrase three times: “Whatever you have to say to me, you may put it in writing.” It leaves you wondering if you have ever seen the real Anne. 

“Queen Anne” is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1 until 30 September

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue