I went over to Stratford yesterday to see Helen Edmundson’s new play Queen Anne in the RSC’s Swan Theatre. Because the weather was so terrible and I didn’t feel like driving back after dark, in the pouring rain and a gale force wind, I went over on public transport and, as a consequence, had a very long time to think through what I had seen and to come to the conclusion that there are narratives and narratives and what I had just witnessed was not a narrative that belonged in the theatre.
I know that a lot of people don’t agree with me, but I have very definite requirements from a piece of live theatre, the most fundamental of which is that I should come away having been shaken out of some aspect of my complacency and made to think afresh about the way in which I view and live my life. It may be because I spend so much of my time working with Shakespeare, I don’t know, but I expect a play, whilst obviously being about specific characters, to have a more universal facet, to reflect not only the life on stage but also the society in which it is being presented. Hamlet is not just about Hamlet; it is about the horror of indecision and uncertainty that can afflict each of us and, as a result, have incalculable consequences for any individual, any state.
Helen Edmundson’s play doesn’t, I’m afraid, fit the bill, mainly because, unlike Hamlet, it is just about the main character, Queen Anne, and her relationship with Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough. It wasn’t that it lacked interest. Like most of us, I suspect, I knew very little about Anne other than that she had given birth to and lost seventeen children and that she had had a difficult relationship with Sarah. It was a story worth telling. It is just that, for me, that sort of close exploration of a specific character and a specific relationship, belongs in novel rather than in a play. I didn’t come away feeling that I needed to rethink anything about my own circumstances or about the society in which I function. I’m sorry but, gale force winds or no gale forces winds, the world hadn’t shifted.
I hadn’t realised just how strongly I felt about this until I had almost three hours in which to ask why I had come away feeling so uneasy about the play. And I don’t mean to denigrate the narrative of the novel in respect of the narrative of the play in anyway whatsoever. It was simply that this particular production made me recognise that I ask different things of the two story-telling forms and that in this instance I felt that the playwright might have been better advised to write a novel instead. Apart from anything else, you really can’t explore a relationship as complex as Anne and Sarah’s in two and a half hours of dialogue. It requires something far more detailed.
It was all the more disappointing as I really felt that Edmundson missed an opportunity to explore something that is more universal and certainly something that pervades our twenty-first century every bit as much as it did the beginning of the eighteenth and that was the influence on public perceptions of the satirist. The play does touch on this, indeed, one of the more prominent characters was Jonathan Swift, satirist extraordinaire, but it wasn’t central. It wasn’t what the play was about.
I’ve been uneasy for sometime now about the number of productions we’ve had at Stratford recently which have been adaptations of novels. Surely there are enough playwrights out there who have something of their own to say? But it has taken this play to make me realise why I have been so disquieted. I suppose from that point of view it was at least a performance that clarified my perceptions and for that I should be grateful.