Three hundred years after the death of Queen Anne in 1714, Kate Glover's play highlights the intrigue, plots and squabbles in a tantalisingly little known reign. Directed by Kenneth Michaels, Glover’s playQueen Anne is a production by Historia Theatre Company. It ran during July and August 2014 at the Barons Court Theatre .
When Queen Anne, shy, gout-ridden and overweight, ascends the throne in 1702, the Jacobites, proto-terrorists, will stop at nothing to kill her and put her half-brother, the Roman Catholic James Stuart, on the throne. James just happens to be supported by the hugely powerful Louis XIV of France . Court favourites vie for influence with the Queen. Coalition politics spark off intense rivalries between Whig and Tory politicians. With her husband and children all dead, how will the Queen cope?
The play opens with Jonathan (Gulliver’s Travels) Swift striding onto the stage to find, to his astonishment, the newly departed Sophia, Electress of Hanover and mother of the future George 1. It is 1714. We find we are in a sort of Huis Clos Waiting Room. Swift is unable to get much out of Sophia beyond the admission that yes, she is dead actually, and that this was the fault of a hurtful letter to her from Queen Anne, the contents of which she refuses to divulge. The two break off as a flashback seems to begin.Anne, not yet Queen, rushes on, attended by her friend Sarah Churchill. They are escaping from her father James II. It is 1688 and James’s wife has just given birth to a baby boy who, to the consternation of most English people, will be brought up as a Roman Catholic. Anne feels guilty about abandoning her father. Sarah encourages her to be strong.
We go to 1702. Queen Anne prays, using a prayer book that belonged to Elizabeth I. Sarah enters. Anne explains how inspired she feels by Elizabeth and how she intends to defend the Church of England from all attacks. She still feels guilty about her father. She grieves for her dead children and Sarah comforts her.
Scene 2 takes us to the aftermath of the Battle of Blenheim (1704) against the French, a brilliant victory by the Duke of Marlborough. Sarah starts to nag the Queen about the dagger of assassination by terrorists, also known as Jacobites, (the Roman Catholic supporters of the exiled James Stuart, son of James II). The threat is more deadly as the young James Stuart has the backing of the enemy - King Louis XIV of France . Anne feels Sarah is exaggerating and in any case she doesn’t like being bossed around. Sarah then takes Anne to task about the number of Tories she has in her government.
Swift is dismayed that Sarah is already banging on about party. He explains the differences between the Tories (pro Church of England and the monarchy) and Whigs (anti French and pro freedom of worship). Sophia guesses correctly that Swift is more pro Tory and demands to know if he is also a Jacobite (and therefore opposed to her son George of Hanover becoming King). Swift is not a Jacobite but refuses to say it.
We hear crowds huzzah-ing outside and yelling “Down with the French” after Marlborough’s second brilliant victory against the French – the Battle of Ramillies, 1706. Marlborough and Lord Treasurer Godolphin enter, together with the Duchess and Queen Anne. The aim of the meeting is to force Queen Anne to accept the son in law of the Marlboroughs as one of the secretaries of State. He is a Whig. Anne can’t standSunderland personally and she does not want to make appointments on party lines. She detests Party. Godolphin tries to explain that the situation with the French is still very dangerous. They need money to carry on the war and the only way to get it is to have enough Whigs in Parliament to vote thought the necessary finance. Anne is distressed and walks out.
Swift ruefully tells Sophia that the plotters got their way and Sunderland was appointed. However, the other Secretary of State, Harley, was very worried about the way the Queen was being bullied. He managed to have access to her via Abigail Masham, one of the Queens’s waiting women.
In Scene 6, we witness the standoff between Sarah and Abigail. Sarah is furious that her influence over the Queen seems to have waned since Mrs Masham started to work for Anne. All this is overheard by Godolphin and Marlborough, who decide that the only way they can get the Queen to get rid of Harley is for them both to threaten to resign.
Swift tells Sophia that yet again the plotters got their way. Harley was forced from office and more Whigs were appointed. Their conversation is interrupted by screams and the sounds of cannon going off : the French are attempting to invade with the Pretender in tow. They are already in the Firth of Forth. There is panic. Anne, Marlborough and Godolphin meet to discuss the crisis. They are reassured when a messenger arrives with news of the capture of one of the French ships. It looks like the French fleet will be chased out of the Firth.
Scene 9 opens with Sarah castigating Anne about her refusal to appoint more Whig ministers to Parliament. Sarah accuses Anne of having secret meetings with the Tory Harley. More shockingly, she accuses Anne of being passionately in love with Abigail Masham and produces a salacious ballad, hinting at a supposed lesbian relationship between Anne and Abigail. Anne is devastated. She is taken off by Masham. Marlborough is horrified that Sarah showed Anne the ballad
Scene 10. Funeral bells toll. We hear the prayer of the dead for Prince George of Denmark, much beloved husband of Anne.
Act Two opens with Marlborough and Godolphin congratulating themselves that the Queen, her resolve weakened in her grief over her husband’s death, has now agreed to the appointment of their Whig protégés in government. Sarah is unpleasant about Anne and insinuates that her love for George was merely superficial. The men are shocked.
Scene 2 brings us another pair of plotters - Abigail and Harley. Harley is still very concerned about Anne being in the grip of bullies. Their conversation is interrupted by the entry of Sarah in a furious mood. She castigates the Queen yet again about the decline of their friendship. Anne refuses to engage with her and gives her the same reply over and over again. Sarah flounces out. This will be their last meeting.
Masham and Harley worry about Sarah’s threat to blackmail Anne using Anne’s early affectionate letters to her. Godolphin tells Anne he is worried about the sacking of the Marlboroughs’ son in law Sunderland . Anne sticks by her decision. We later hear from the Marlboroughs that Godolphin too has been dismissed. Marlborough tries to dissuade his wife from thoughts of blackmail.
In Scene 6, Marlborough is being received by the Queen. Harley is now Chancellor of the Exchequer and Marlborough agrees to stay on as General in Chief against the French. Anne insists however that Sarah give up her lucrative posts.
Sophia and Swift discuss the peace with France in 1713. Sophia says that her son George was furious about this as it would make things easier for the Pretender: Louis XIV of France, his protector, was now freed up to support him in his claim to the throne of England.
In Scene 8, Harley tries to persuade Anne to agree to certain demands of George of Hanover, including allowing his son to reside in England. Anne is adamant in her refusal. She points out that George’s son will merely create a rival court which would be unbearable for her. She dictates a very sharp letter to George and Sophia. And we morph to Sophia reading aloud the terms of this letter. These really upset her and caused the seizure that led to her death.
Anne now decides to sack Harley but his anger and vengefulness distress her greatly. Within days of this, she too is dead.
In the Epilogue, we see Anne arriving at the Waiting Room. Sophia gently tells Swift to leave as it is ‘not his time yet’. She and Anne curtsey to each other and go off into the darkness. Swift hears the coronation bells ringing in the start of the reign of King George I. He has a premonition that this family will go on for a very long time until at the rainbow end of time, nearly 300 years later, another George is born.
Jonathan Swift tries to hide his surprise at meeting the ghost of the Electress Sophia of Hanover (and mother of George I)
Queen Anne with her friend and confidante Sarah Churchill
Sidney Godolphin talks business with Queen Anne while the Churchills look on.