In an early trilogy, Shakespeare tells the story of Henry VI, a desperately weak king of England who spent much of his reign in a catatonic state because of severe mental illness, and whose formidable French wife, Margaret of Anjou, more or less ran the country – that is, once she had wrested control from the deputies and minders who had ruled on Henry’s behalf since he had inherited the Crown as a baby.
It has been said that Queen Margaret is Shakespeare’s greatest female role. If you add together all her lines throughout the three plays, and the sequel to them, Richard III, they outnumber King Lear’s. So, in these more enlightened times, it seems like a great idea to condense the plays into one, call it Queen Margaret, and market it as the play Shakespeare would have written if he was alive today. Then you cast it inclusively, giving the titular role to one of our best black actresses and several of the feuding nobles’ roles to women.
The whole package sounds like terrific theatre, if a little on the well-meaning side. But there are problems. It is one thing to offer an audience a new take on Hamlet or Julius Caesar – most theatregoers will be familiar with the plot, if not the original play. The Henry VI plays, however, are another matter. They are rarely performed; even RSC enthusiasts are likely to be unfamiliar with them. They tell a grim, complicated story of violence, rivalry and civil war. They go on, altogether, for eight or nine hours. Also, dare we say it, they were Shakespeare’s early work and – well, let’s just say he got better.
I realise I am plunging into a hornets’ nest here, and want to say that I am very much in favour of inclusive casting. Some of the best Shakespearian adaptations I have seen have been the least faithful in detail – Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood absolutely nails Macbeth, with an all-Japanese cast and aesthetic and nary a word of the original text so far as I recall. I also find that sometimes a complete cultural transfer and reboot works brilliantly – Julius Caesar set in an African republic, for example, or Much Ado About Nothing as an Indian rom-com. I’m looking forward greatly to Sophie Okonedo’s Cleopatra at the NT. I also thought Jade Anouka was brilliant as the formidable Queen Margaret. Her passion and stamina powers the story and lights up the stage. In fact, she deserved better.
How can anything be better than Shakespeare? Ah, there’s the rub. We tend to approach Shakespeare with enormous reverence, delighting in finding a 21stcentury sensibility struggling to fight its way out of even his below-average works, hampered by pesky Elizabethan prejudices about minorities on stage. Jeanie O’Hare, who adapted Queen Margaret from the sprawling Henry VI plays, worked at the RSC through Michael Boyd’s three-year staging of the history plays. ““It was an amazing cycle, but, for three years, Stratford was crawling with men in uniform,” says O’Hare. “I got more and more obsessed by the women in the plays: their place, their role.”
Her project to bring Margaret out of the sidelines of history as Shakespeare writes it and put her centre stage seems entirely commendable. Jade Anouka gives it her all – it’s a huge, sprawling, emotional part, and yet it somehow seems light on character development. O’Hare says she tried to think of Shakespeare as her co-writer. You get the feeling that she felt somewhat presumptuous and interrupted as little as she could get away with.
The irony is that, while we tend to revere Shakespeare’s lines as Holy Writ, almost a secular Bible for Western culture, he worked in a very collaborative environment. There are credible claims that Christopher Marlowe helped out with Henry VI Part 1 at least. Shakespeare would probably have found the idea of himself as sole originator of a canonical text quite difficult to get his head around. Almost all his works were based on existing stories. If something bombed on stage, he would have happily rewritten it and many of the plays, not least Hamlet, exist in multiple versions suggesting an almost constant process of revision and adaptation.
I think Queen Margaret would be a much better play if O’Hare had strayed rather more from Shakespeare’s vision, or even ripped it up and written something different altogether. For all her fire and courage, Anouka seems constrained by an Elizabethan corset, and the play’s use of selfies and Play Stations can’t overcome that essential problem.
I have been trying for a while to figure out why I find so much revisionist Shakespeare well-intentioned but not entirely satisfying, and I have come to the conclusion that if you are distracted by the minority group the actors come from the production isn’t quite working as it should. It’s not that we undervalue female Henry V’s or black Macbeths. It’s more that we overvalue Shakespeare. We put fresh faces on our stage and yet fear to follow them wherever they take us. I would also like to see more actors not playing Shakespeare, the ultimate dead white male writer, and performing stuff that will make me think about someone else’s story. An experimental two-hander about a gay Muslim performed in a sari shop, for example, or a promenade performance in a warehouse that simulates the alienation and bewilderment experienced by asylum seekers. (In Manchester, over the last 18 months or so, I’ve seen both of the above).
Shakespeare often travels much better than we think he will – his themes are universal, his language and plotting, particularly on one of his off-days, sometimes aren’t. I don’t think Jeanie O’Hare needed a co-writer. Not even him. I rather wish she’d collaborated with Jade Anouka instead, and dumped the squabbling York, Sussex and Warwick once and for all.
Queen Margaret is playing at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until October 6th.