The National Portrait Gallery and Queen Anne (the play)

Last Friday, Adam suggested to me that we should go see a play on Saturday. I looked online to see what was playing nearby and to what shows we could get tickets still. In my searching for Shakespearean plays, I accidentally found a Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production on stage that weekend. The best two parts: the production was about an early 18th-century monarch (I love monarchs!) and starred my favorite actress, Romola Garai. Seriously, I had butterflies in my stomach as I suggested to Adam that we travel to London to see the play.

Of course, a trip to London should include more than a few hours in a playhouse. Yes, it must include some sight-seeing. I decided that the sights that Adam needed to see were those of a historical and visual kind. We must go to the National Portrait Gallery before going to watch the play. That we did, and how fortunate that we did it. Adam did not have a strong sense of British monarchical history, so this pictorial tour really helped him understand the Tudor, Stuart, and Hanoverian succession. We began our tour, with me as guide, on the second floor with the Tudors; then we made our way through the early and later Stuarts and stopped particularly at the Anne corner so that Adam could get a sense of the figures he would find in our forthcoming afternoon’s drama.

In this corner, one finds Queen Anne, Sarah Churchill (Duchess of Marlborough), and John Churchill (Duke of Marlborough).


For those who want or need it, here’s a brief Anne lesson: Queen Anne, daughter of James II, took the throne as a result of her kingly father having fled England in the Bloodless (aka Glorious) Revolution and upon the deaths of her older sister, Mary, who ruled alongside husband William (who outlived her, but eventually kicked the bucket). Perhaps fate or luck of the monarchical draw put Anne on the throne. Whatever the case, Anne became the last Stuart monarch. She tried to provide an heir to the throne, but some eighteen pregnancies could not produce a living Stuart heir. Following Anne’s death, her German cousin assumed the throne.

During her rulership, she relied on the kindness and advice of ministers and friends, including the illustrious Sarah Churchill.


Isn’t she lovely? Isn’t she wonderful?

Sarah Churchill (nee Jenyns, later Duchess of Marlborough) knew Anne since she was a teenager. In their adult relationship, Sarah apparently took advantage of their closeness to try to promote her husband and their political leanings. Notice that key in the painting? That’s a symbol of her power, the key to the queen’s…everything! FWIW, the play focuses on these two issues.

Below you see a symbolic picture of Sarah’s husband’s military prowess and victories. I give you John Churchill (Duke of Marlborough).


Of course we didn’t only look at the Anne-era paintings. We made our way through the mid 16th- through the early 19th-century galleries. See one of my favorite paintings (ever!) below:


Top right–that’s my boy, John Wilmot, the second earl of Rochester! Below him is John Dryden. Ha, how would that make Dryden feel? 😀

After we toured the National Portrait Gallery, we popped into the National Gallery of Art so that I could show Adam The Ambassadors, The Arnolfini Portrait, and Sunflowers.

Back to Anne, though….the play!

Queen Anne is currently playing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London. The play is written by Helen Edmundson, directed by Natalie Abrahami, and stars two powerful women, Romola Garai and Emma Cunniffe. You might have noticed my focus on women here. The play’s musical director, casting director, costume and set designers, and more are also women. It really pleased me to see this list of women, for I hear that it is still difficult for women to break through in theatre.

Before I discuss the play, let me give you some eye candy. In other words, here are some pictures of the outside of the theatre (which is under construction, so I only took pictures with the posters):

OK, I like to pose in pictures. You might have noticed this. 😛

Here is the inside:

This theatre is amazing. One of the pictures of Adam and me shows the lovely ceiling. I love that there is a “safety curtain” down during intermission. The set, shown in the pictures, is a barebones set. The stage is always filled with amazing props and furniture, such as a giant four-post bed, but they move in and out of scenes. The basic set is meant to emulate a space that can serve as a bedroom, a pub, and even the outdoors! I was blown away by the stage management and use of lighting, not to mention the eighteenth-century costumes (OMG!) Bravo!

I didn’t mention this before, so I’ll say it now: we took these pictures from where we were sitting in the second row! I got us some discounted tickets (saved over 65%) and sat close enough to see this amazing set as well as the actors as they passionate spoke and at times sang their lines. I was so close that I got to see them spit as they spoke. That is the joy of live theatre, my friends!

This play particularly focuses on emotion, so a lot of spitting! Queen Anne is certainly a melodrama. The drama centers on the tensions of Princess Anne become Queen Anne, and on Sarah Churchill manipulating and then losing favor with the queen. The play does a fantastic job of blending comedy with a modern sense of the tragic–not in the classical sense which requires the hero or heroine to die, but in the sense of the death of a friendship.

One element of the play that surprised me was the attention it paid to homoeroticism on Anne’s part for Sarah, who is reminded continually that as girls they used to role play as characters named Miss Morley and Miss Freeman who had an “intimate” relationship. In the dramatic present Anne tries to kiss Sarah on the mouth, and Sarah insinuates that as younger people they smooched, which was OK, but as adults not so much. In some way, this play does not simply paint a picture of friendship–it illustrates at least on Anne’s part the tale of a lover desperately trying to hold onto her beloved. Of course, the play reveals Sarah’s inner feelings about this kind of relationship. She is sickened by it, but she puts up with it so that she can control Anne and pave the way for her husband’s and her own success. Eventually, another woman (the servant Hill, later Lady Mashum) fills Sarah’s place, and the queen’s state advisor, Harley, convinces her to cast out the Churchills. This signals the end of a hybrid personal and political relationship between Anne and Sarah.

The actress playing the role of Anne knocked it out of the park. She conveyed to perfection Anne’s delicacy of emotion, neediness, and physical and mental suffering from gout and loss of child and eventually husband. I did not know Emma Cunniffe before this play, but I will look for her hereafter. She amazed me, for I felt Anne’s emotion with every facial expression, gesture, and line delivered by Cunniffe. I have never been an Anne fan, per se, for what I have read of her has given me an unfavorable impression of her, but Cunniffe humanized this figure–she brought her to life. I now thing of Queen Anne as a real person, not just a monarch. She cared deeply for God, her husband, and most of all her country if the play is to be believed, of course.

Garai’s performance of Sarah Churchill was so sharp, passionate, and mesmerizing. I always thought of the real figure of the Duchess of M as a shallow navelgazer, a manipulator only looking out for #1, but the play, through the excellent writing, direction and Garai’s acting, allows her to have a sense of interiority and depth that I did not expect. She has real emotion. She cares deeply for her family. She cares for her friends. She does commit personal attacks on Anne, but for this viewer I could understand why she did what she did. This does not excuse the hurt Sarah inflicted on Anne, but in seeing Sarah and Anne’s relationship crumble, in seeing Sarah lose her hold on Anne, you also get a sense of the hurt Sarah experiences, too.

Even if Romola Garai were not in the play, I would have wanted to see it because of the subject matter, but when I found out that my favorite actress in the whole world is in this play, I really wanted to see it. Garai has performed the roles of Emma in the BBC version of Austen’s novel as well as Cordelia alongside Ian McKellan in a Masterpiece production of King Lear. Every time I watch this latter production I cry when Lear carries Cordelia onto the stage. I have seen Garai in other films, too, so for about 10 years I have admired her skill as an actress that truly becomes the character. In Queen Anne, she did not disappoint.

At the start of my summer experience in England I visited The Globe and saw Twelfth Night. It was fantastic! I didn’t think anything could top it…until last weekend. Queen Anne kept me on the edge of my seat (at least I had a seat this time); more importantly, it made me care for the characters who are based on actual historical figures, so I felt that I learned a lot as I was entertained by this fabulous production and cast. Gosh, I love it when my studies and my pleasures (in this case, playgoing) come together. #lucky


Post play dinner!





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