By Joseph Pisano
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” This observation from Shakespeare’s resentfully puritanical Malvolio in Twelfth Night could be the subtitle of playwright Moira Buffini’s Handbagged, an impressively metatheatrical and comic take on the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and her longest-serving British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Despite being contemporaries with a few other major things in common, like living through the Blitz, a profound respect for tradition, and an extreme devotion to their fathers, the two women agreed on almost nothing when it came to their nation’s needs, even differing about whether they were leading a society or just a collection of individuals.
With her harsh policies and harsher demeanor, Thatcher, the so-called Iron Lady, essentially turned herself into a twentieth-century Malvolio, courting controversy, enmity, and ridicule over her eleven-year tenure as prime minister, while the queen seemingly hit the greatness trifecta by simply respecting the limits of her largely symbolic role as the British head of state and occasionally giving a little enigmatic wave from her carriage or balcony.
Although Buffini, in her highly speculative script, tries to balance the scales a bit by mentioning a few of Elizabeth’s own well-known shortcomings, such as an antiquated desire to trap her much-adored daughter-in-law in a loveless marriage to her unfaithful son and, you know, essentially living on the dole for her entire life (a particular annoyance to Thatcher, of course), it doesn’t come close to offsetting the playwright’s charges against Thatcherism, which include a callous indifference to economic hardship, curtailing civil liberties, an unwillingness to sanction South Africa for apartheid, and, above all, taking every opportunity to declare a moralistic superiority to anyone who might see government as a source of help rather than as an enemy of freedom.
To be sure, Buffini isn’t shy about extrapolating from the historical record, especially in regards to the queen and prime minister’s notes-free weekly meetings. While dramatizing these decidedly private interactions, Buffini never strays egregiously from the plausible, but she also lets the audience know, through a raft of fourth-wall-ignoring conceits, that her imagination is definitely calling the shots. In inventing, er, recreating her 1980s versions of Liz (Beth Hylton) and Mags (Susan Lynskey)–Buffini’s impish nicknames for the prim-and-proper pair–she hilariously feigns losing narrative control of the play by having older versions of the queen (Anita Carey) and prime minister (Kate Fahy) chime in with their personal and long-after-the-fact recollections of those tumultuous times. Unsurprisingly, the two women’s more senior selves frequently remember things quite differently, suggesting the slippery nature of truth, particularly when trying to come to terms with one’s own past.
As Liz and Mags tensely, but respectfully, discuss the issues of the day–often over tea, naturally–their older doppelgängers go on the defensive, offering self-justifying rationalizations for choices that seem even more problematic with the passage of time. When things, however, can’t be put in a better light, both sets of queens and prime ministers choose instead to focus on more pleasant happenings, like the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, though, for the above-mentioned reason, that topic, too, eventually becomes off-limits.
As the older queen, no fan of being included in Buffini’s play, voices her desire for an intermission, touchier subjects are raised by a couple of rebellious male actors (Cody Leroy Wilson and John Lescault). Ostensibly present to help tell the women’s story, or stories, they divvy up all of the smaller roles, portraying everyone from a lowly palace footman to the queen’s and prime minister’s less-than-impressive husbands to political figures like Neil Kinnock and Ronald Reagan to another notable female whose identity I won’t spoil. Occasionally, though, when the elisions become too galling, like, say, completely bypassing the 1981 urban riots that swept across England, the annoyed actors break character to fill in the uncomfortable historical blanks, often with thoughts that are unapologetically pointed.
Having helmed the original, Olivier-award-winning production of Handbagged at London’s Kiln Theatre (formerly the Tricycle Theatre), director Indhu Rubasingham is clearly adept at handling Buffini’s playwriting gymnastics, creating order out of what might have only amounted to charming chaos. The talented cast immeasurably aids Rubasingham’s clarifying efforts, adding depth to Buffini’s loosely sketched characters, while Carolyn Downing’s evocative sound design and Jesse Belsky’s clever lighting help to turn Richard Kent’s spare white stage into the appropriate setting for a very dignified tête-à-tête.
Obviously, it’s much easier to make a case against an oft-quoted politician than a tight-lipped queen. But the fact remains that Thatcher said what she said and did what she did, so, if a smart playwright like Buffini can now turn all of those words and deeds into a compelling indictment against her, well, there’s really only one person to blame. The Iron Lady likely would have appreciated that unforgiving logic.
Photos: Carol Rosegg
Handbagged Through June 30 at the 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan). Two hours with one intermission. www.59e59.org