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What We're Watching - Queen Margaret

Royal Exchange, Manchester Jade Anouka is compelling in Jeanie O’Hare’s bold take on Shakespeare and the life of Margaret of Anjou

by Susannah Clapp

A few years ago a reader grumbled that I only wrote about women. If only, I thought – my female features clenched in a grim rictus. Would I ever have enough material to do that – even for a week? Well, I do now. The stage is looking different. Not only because actresses are taking on “male” parts. But because writers and directors are doing for women what Tom Stoppard did for attendant lords in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: refocusing a familiar story through the eyes of characters once considered marginal.

Jeanie O’Hare’s Queen Margaret is a decisive example. Margaret of Anjou has more lines than any other female character in Shakespeare’s plays. Why is she not more discussed? O’Hare, who was for seven years dramaturg at the RSC, thinks it’s because her appearances are scattered over several plays, not all often performed – the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III. I think it is also because the huge, sad arc of Margaret’s life is disorienting: it’s as if she were several beings. She begins as a package pimped to Henry VI by the Earl of Suffolk, who wants her himself, becomes a vibrant queen and lover – noted for strength of mind and quick tongue – and ends, after the murders of her husband and son, as a raging doom-monger whose fertile linguistic gift burgeons when cursing: most insulters would feel happy to come up with “thou elvish-mark’d abortive rooting hog”.

O’Hare’s play, written with a pentameter beat and some rhyming couplets, and drawing on Shakespeare’s speeches, snares much of this. Set in an approximate – Game Boys and wheelie cases – 21st century, Elizabeth Freestone’s production makes clear the internecine plotting of the Henry plays (wonderfully parodied in the Beyond the Fringe “saucy Worcester” sketch). It shows the north laid waste by strife; in one of the most far-reaching scenes, song swells over a battleground. It convincingly regenders characters: Lorraine Bruce’s powerful York is belligerent in a towel turban.

But some of the sap of Shakespeare’s Margaret is missing: there is not enough smouldering with Sussex – or enough cursing. Jade Anouka is as compelling as she was in the groundbreaking Shakespeare Trilogy at the Donmar: you simply want more of her. Her face blazes; her body is from the start primed for fighting. She has a gusto – in smile, sinews and throaty delivery – that could easily transfix an army. And she has a familiar spirit in the shape of a ghostly Joan of Arc. Lucy Mangan flits around the Queen: poignant and elfin, she is a reminder of the soreness between France and England, and of the longing for peace. An Ariel spirit waiting for release, she is O’Hare’s most ingenious touch.

Copied without permission from the Guardian website

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