Forget everything you have assumed about Handbagged, Moira Buffini’s marvelous play about Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It is different, and better, than that. Here, consider:
Our current Chief Magistrate makes people uncomfortable with his insulting and divisive rhetoric, but what if we had a leader who was all that, and actually meant what she said? Then we would have Margaret Thatcher. We in the States sometimes fail to recognize what a revolutionary figure she was, since the free-market economics she embraced is just one of a spectrum of mainstream political choices here. But in England, it was a forced march away from the previous generation’s political consensus. There was, as we Americans say, blood on the floor, although the British are very polite about such things and we may not have noticed how much.
Queen Elizabeth II was part of that consensus, although she was of Thatcher’s generation (in fact, six months younger than Thatcher) and not political at all. She was (and still is) instead the public face of England, and by design its link with its storied past — not just the eight Prime Ministers who had previously served under her, but its heroic resistance in the second War; its Victorian days of empire, and back further, to Henry V, to William the Conqueror, to Cnut the Great. She had been Queen for twenty-seven years when Thatcher elevated to the Prime Minister’s office; it was understandably a little more difficult for her to slam on the brakes and reverse course than it was for Thatcher.
Buffini’s conceit in Handbagged, now getting a robust production at Round House in Bethesda, is that Thatcher and the Queen had a personal relationship that was at once contentious, intense and frustrating. But there’s more in Buffini’s bag of tricks than that: she has elected to turn this high-stakes drama into a comedy — and more than that, a meta-comedy, in which the fourth wall is not only breached but burned to the ground. The story will be “between us and these three walls,” the Queen (Jennifer Mendenhall) tells the audience, making sure that we are in on the joke.
Mendenhall plays the Queen, but she plays only part of the Queen — the Queen in retrospect, after the Thatcher years have passed and action has become commentary. Beth Hylton is the younger Queen, who ushers Thatcher in and out of office. Thatcher, too, requires two actors: Susan Lynskey to play her in her years of power (1979-1990; she was fifty-three when she assumed office), and Kate Fahy to play Thatcher in repose.
Their Historical and Political Majesties are supplemented by two male actors (Cody LeRoy Wilson and John Lescault), who scamper around the stage like the beloved Corgis who scamper at Queen Liz’s heels. I say two male actors because that’s not just who they are, it’s who they play. While they don the roles of footmen, Dennis Thatcher, Prince Philip, Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, and various labor leaders, cabinet officials, foreign leaders and political opponents, they never let you forget that they are actors, engaged to play these parts, for money.
When the actor played by Lescault, having previously played Thatcher’s husband Dennis, assumes the role of a hostile labor leader, the senior Maggie, bewildered, asks, “aren’t you Dennis?” When he manages finally to convince her that the script and his contract now require him to play the labor leader, Maggie stalks off in high dudgeon, outraged that he has been masquerading as her husband. Similarly, the two actors start off the second Act with a fierce battle over who will get to play Neil Kinnock, the Labour Party leader whose high-blown rhetoric was insufficient to pull Maggie (or, later, John Major) out of 10 Downing Street.
It would be easy for such arch stuff to become tiresome after a while. The remedy is not merely good acting — and the acting is all high-caliber here — but direction which makes the production more like a magic act than a play. Director Indhu Rubasingham, who is now the Artistic Director of Tricycle Theatre (you may remember their astonishing Afghanistan cycle when it played at STC in 2010), is responsible for this effect, and it is — how do they put it in England? — simply smashing. When Mendenhall and Fahy enter it is like a vaudeville act, in the sense that Valdimir and Estragon are a vaudeville act. When Hylton and Lynsky enter, as younger Elizabeth and Maggie, and start arguing with their older selves in clipped sentences and asides, it’s like watching a genteel riot break out. And then when the hired actors appear, as footmen — well, hellzapoppin.
closes March 3, 2018
Details and tickets
The Queen and the Prime Minister both have plummy English accents, but Thatcher’s has more of a drawl to it, and the Queen confesses that she has difficulty understanding it. Of course, all four actors are absolutely pellucid. Wilson and Lescault don’t attempt much by way of accent, and there is not a great deal of separation among their various characters (I would not have recognized Lescault’s Ronald Reagan except that Fahy’s Thatcher identified him) but of course they are playing the actors who are playing those characters, not the characters themselves. Melissa Flaim is the dialect coach.
With all this giddiness, it’s easy to forget that this is at bottom a history play, designed to open up the recent past to those who have forgotten it, or never experienced it. There are longstanding hints and rumors that Thatcher and the Queen detested each other but to Buffini the relationship was more complex, and wistful. Elizabeth sought to establish a friendship with Thatcher, as she sought to establish one with each of her Prime Ministers, but she could never find a way in with this humorless, ideologically-driven free marketer. Thatcher, in love with British history and the idea of the constitutional monarchy but convinced that socialism (by which she meant the political economy of England which she inherited) was not only a failed economic system but a threat to freedom and an invitation to moral decay, was frustrated that she could never communicate the big picture to the Queen. Plus, as it turned out, Thatcher hated the Corgis, and dreaded the annual visit to the royal castle in Balmoral, Scotland.
Ruffini goes through some of the less-remembered incidents during Thatcher’s tenure — the Bristol riots in 1981; Reagan’s efforts to get her to negotiate the Falklands issue, rather than sending in the troops; her wildly unpopular poll tax; her opposition to the reunification of Germany — with a light touch, often utilizing comic commentary by one of the two male actors (usually the one played by Wilson, who is delightful throughout; I have seen him in two recent shows playing multiple characters, and the man has some chops). But the touch is firm enough so that you will remember them, days later.
The Scottish poet Robert Burns once advised that man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or else what’s a heaven for? But Round House has a grasp of this play which equals Buffini’s exceeding reach, and if you conclude that the result is theatrical heaven, I won’t disagree.
Handbagged, by Moira Buffini . Directed by Indhu Rubasingham (Associate Director: Harry Mackrill) . Featuring Kate Fahy, Jennifer Mendenhall, Sysan Lynskey, Beth Hylton, Cody LeRoy Wilson, and John Lescault . Scenic and costume design: Richard Kent (Associate Scenic and Costume Designer: Rachel Stone) . Lighting design: Jesse Belsky . Sound design: Carolyn Downing, assisted by Justin Schmitz . Dialect coach: Melissa Flaim . Props Master: Kasey Hendricks . Dramaturg: Gabrielle Hoyt . Produced by Round House Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.