Queen Margaret is the first play in this year’s Autumn/Winter season at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. Margaret of Anjou appears in four of Shakespeare’s history plays, including the immensely popular Richard III. She has more dialogue than any other female character in Shakespeare, even Rosalind. However, because her story is fragmented across several of Shakespeare’s works, we know very little about her. You would have to watch over twelve hours of Shakespeare’s canon to gain an insight into this incredible Queen, who played a pivotal role in the War of the Roses. Thankfully, Jeanie O’Hare extracts Margaret from Shakespeare’s plays and creates a brand new play, weaving together her story by adding new sequences, dialogue and bringing a fresh perspective to the important part Margaret played in this critical moment in British history.
O’Hare describes her relationship with Shakespeare’s text as collaborative and considers him a co-writer. This respect towards the original texts shines through Queen Margaret. The care and attention to detail given to the newly added parts of Margaret’s story is evident. They are so brilliantly written, it is difficult to distinguish which parts are Shakespeare and which parts are O’Hare’s creations. Fully embodying the spirit, and poetry, of Shakespeare, Jeanie O’Hare crafts a contemporary play that manages to keep the essence of his history plays. It fits perfectly into the Bard’s canon and feels very much like a new Shakespeare play, 400 years after his death. It has all the hallmarks of Shakespeare’s history plays; incredible protagonists, political fighting, wars, and ambitious lords plotting to usurp the monarch. It also exposes the beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry, emphasising the rhyming couplets that are significantly littered throughout his plays. By staging this play in the Royal Exchange Theatre, which is in the round, the audience gains an intimacy with Queen Margaret that has never been seen before and is truly captivating.
The addition of the spectre of Joan of Arc into this story was a stroke of genius. Stuck in purgatory until her death is avenged, she provides the critical link to France, where Margaret is originally from. Haunting Margaret, who witnessed her execution as a child, gives Margaret a confidante who she can trust in a court where loyalty is unreliable. Without the need for her regal strength in these scenes, the real character of Margaret is tenderly exposed; her weaknesses, her fears, and homesickness. These parts of the play make Margaret relatable to the audience, highlighting her vulnerability, but also add a much needed humour to such a serious play, as they reveal her hatred of the English weather and her desperation for proper cheese and wine.
Jade Anouka is sublime as Queen Margaret. She presents the full arc of her character, captivating the audience from start to finish. She flawlessly progresses from an innocent French queen full of happiness and joy at the beginning of the play, to bitter betrayal, as her son is disinherited. She admirably grows into a powerful, ruthless leader, protecting her family as her weak husband, Henry VI lacks the courage to do so. Finally, Anouka finishes the play as a grieving queen and mother. It is an astonishing performance, which captures all emotions and creates a magnificent female Shakespeare character who is independent and authoritative, dominating all the male characters in Queen Margaret. Perfectly juxtaposed with Max Runham’s splendid performance as the mentally and physically fragile King Henry VI, this antithesis makes Margaret’s character much more impressively powerful.
Another superb casting choice was Lorraine Bruce as the Duke of York. Usually played by a male actor, the decision to cast a woman into this role was inspired. York creates a haunting parallel of Margaret’s story. The scene where she finds her youngest son, Rutland, dead is heart-wrenching. As Margaret taunts her enemy, you cannot help but sympathise with this mother who has lost a son. Providing a grim omen for what awaits Margaret, this scene struck me to the core. It is a pivotal moment in history that pours fuel onto the war between York and Lancaster, paving the way for Kwami Odoom’s brilliantly psychotic Richard III to gain bloody vengeance on the house of Lancaster, turning the rest of Queen Margaret into a bloodbath.
Queen Margaret is also skilfully directed by Elizabeth Freestone to provide a fresh, contemporary setting to the play. Characters use mobile phones to realistically see the latest news, providing timely updates of the latest political betrayals, assassinations and the situation on the battlefield. Tableaus are effectively used to simultaneously show on stage the action between two opposing families, York and Lancaster. Characters are strangled with the wires of PlayStation controllers, and when there are riots happening in London, a looter casually carries a TV across the stage. It helps make Shakespeare’s events relatable to a contemporary audience.
Likewise, the production design also makes the play engaging. There is no set, allowing the audience’s attention to focus on Shakespeare’s wonderful characters. Instead, there is a green, grass-like stage, which is segregated into segments by fantastic lighting. When Margaret realises that the nobles are plotting rebellion against her husband, she says that she feels that she is caught in a spider’s web. This metaphor is visually translated as the lighted floor creates a spider’s web, with Margaret at its centre. The sound design also needs to be credited. A deep, pulsating music, echoing a heart-beat intensifies as the action and tension builds, leaving the audience on tenterhooks. It lends the play an edgy, tense feel, which echoes the political landscape of Queen Margaret.
Overall, I loved this play! It really brought history to life, educated me about the War of the Roses, and left me in awe of what an incredible woman Queen Margaret was. It is a story that brings a vitally important queen out of the shadows of history, telling her story so beautifully, it fits right into Shakespeare’s historical canon.
Photo Credits – Johan Persson