Typical. You wait ages for a Shakespeare mash-up on one of Manchester’s main stages then two come along at once. HOME is currently hosting the relatively self-explanatory (and highly recommended) OthelloMacbeth.
Meanwhile, Queen Margaret is a bold and vigorous re-imagining of Shakespeare that forcefully reclaims a female character, who has more lines than some of his more famous women such as Cleopatra, but who has suffered from having them scattered over no less than four plays – the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III. Given, too, that those are among the Bard’s less-frequently performed works, it’s perhaps not quite as surprising as it ought to be that French-born Margaret of Anjou has been overlooked for so long, even though she was the first female monarch and her turbulent reign was during the period we now know as The War Of The Roses.
Writer Jeanie O’Hare and director Elizabeth Freestone, both working with the Royal Exchange for the first time but well acquainted with Shakespeare thanks to their RSC involvement, must surely have had their work cut out for them, sampling so many plays and crafting a coherent narrative to boot. Language-wise, reports O’Hare: “you have to look at it as a contemporary play rather than a radical edit, so we asked what is it about the style that feels contemporary and communicates with a contemporary audience?”
Generally speaking, they’ve succeeded pretty well although, personally, I found it jarring (unless, of course, I twice misheard Jade Anouka as Queen Margaret) to hear King Henry V referred to as “Henry Five”, while surely (and, hopefully, without coming over all “Health Warning” about it) getting her to smoke on stage is just a little bit silly and pointless these days rather than significant and contemporary?
It’s set as nobles and religious figures such as York (Lorraine Bruce), Warwick (Bridgitta Roy), Somerset (Kwami Odoom) and the Cardinal (Dexter Flanders, later to bring impressive rage to Edward IV) who squabble and take advantage of a sickly and timorous King Henry VI (Max Runham) while the whole country reels and revolution hangs in the air.
Moreover, these bloody (the stage is often littered with corpses, even a severed head) and tumultuous events unfold as other countries look on, waiting their opportunity to turn this chaos to their own advantage in the wake of ‘The Hundred Years War’ with the spirit of France inventively embodied in the vengeful ghost of Joan Of Arc (Lucy Mangan). She capers around the stage ‘advising’ the beleaguered and increasingly belligerent Queen Margaret as she struggles to retain control – waging furious war, hatching alliances and doing her best to safeguard the royal inheritance of her son, Prince Edward (Islam Bouakkaz), in the face of rival, equally plausible, claims to the throne.
The nature of the source material and, indeed of the actual history, almost inevitably leads to a slight tendency towards the episodic in the narrative and there was a certain sense of ‘surely not another decisive battle and dramatic reversal of fortunes?’ as the evening unfolded.
But there’s no doubt that this is a well-told and committed version of a fascinating, largely unknown story and a production with a strong sense of putting its audience at the heart of extraordinary events.
(Main image: Jade Anouka, Queen Margaret. Image by Johan Persson)
Queen Margaret is on at the Royal Exchange in Manchester until October 6.