|L-R: Beth Hylton, Anita Carey, Kate Fahy, and Susan Lynskey in HANDBAGGED. Photo by Carol Rosegg.|
Although they were born just six months apart, Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher entered the world under strikingly different circumstances: Elizabeth was born into one of the world’s oldest and most illustrious monarchies and her future role as her country’s Queen was virtually assured; Margaret was born the daughter of a grocer, rising through her own merits to become her country’s first female Prime Minister. In the 1980s, the two “grande dames” met regularly behind closed palace doors and it would be enlightening to know just what they said to one another in those private moments.
Unfortunately, neither Moira Buffini nor anyone else (other than the two women themselves) could let us in on those secrets but Ms Buffini has done the next best thing. She has written Handbagged, a totally fictionalized re-imagining of what might have been said behind those closed doors and, even if this two-act, Brechtian comedy is a theatrical version of “fake news,” it still has the ring of truth about it and is great fun.
Handbagged was a hit in London’s West End and now is enjoying its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan as part of this year’s Brits Off Broadway program. And what could be more appropriate for a Brits Off Broadway program than a play about Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher?
The play is really about Margaret Thatcher and her conservative philosophy, not the Queen, with the Queen’s presence primarily serving as a contrast to the Iron Lady’s ideological extremism. One might have assumed that the Queen would be the more conservative, perhaps even reactionary, of the two - she does, after all, embody the establishment – but then one would be wrong. In fact, Queen Elizabeth was the more moderate, maybe even the more progressive of the two. It may be counter-intuitive but that was the case. Or at least it was in Ms Buffini’s opinion (and in my own). We never really can know for sure since the Queen is constitutionally prohibited from overtly expressing anything other than support for whatever government is in power in Great Britain at any given time.
Both Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher are larger than life figures and it was perhaps that realization that led Ms Buffini to conclude that neither character could be captured on stage in her entirety by a single actor. That is just idle speculation on my part but the fact is that the playwright did see fit to cast two separate actors in the role of the Queen (one older and one younger) and two different actors in the role of Margaret Thatcher (again, one older and one younger). Or it may be that the playwright wanted to show how both characters had changed over the years (although, honestly, I didn’t see much evidence of such evolution in either one). Or maybe the playwright wanted to show how faulty are our memories of our own younger selves (though I didn’t discern much of that either).
Be that as it may, the playwright has written the play with two Queens and two Prime Ministers, not just one of each. In this production, Anita Carey plays the elderly Queen Elizabeth and Beth Hilton plays the younger Liz. Similarly, Kate Fahy plays the older Margaret Thatcher and Susan Lynskey plays the younger Mags. And fortunately all four actors are really spot on in their performances.
But while the playwright felt that the two leading roles required a doubling of the number of actors performing them, she had no such misgivings regarding the production’s other roles – and there are seventeen of them! To perform those seventeen parts, she determined that just two actors would suffice. Actor 1 (Cody Leroy Wilson) plays eight different roles including those of Kenneth Kaunda (the President of Zambia), Nancy Reagan (in drag), Michael Shea (the Queen’s Press Secretary), and Kenneth Clarke (the Conservative Party MP and Cabinet Member known as the “Big Beast”), among others. And Actor 2 (John Lescault) goes him even one better, playing nine different roles including those of Denis Thatcher (Margaret’s husband), Gerry Adams (the leader of the Sinn Fein), Ronald Reagan, Rupert Murdoch, and Prince Philip, among others.
The two male actors are truly remarkable in the range of their performances and it is they who turn the play into the Brechtian carnival it eventually becomes. And it is they who enable the play to shift seamlessly from a discussion of Margaret Thatcher’s role in the conduct of the Falklands War with Argentina to her granting the United States the right to use Britain as an airbase from which to launch a bombing attack on Libya to her reluctance to accept black majority rule in Zambia or to apply anti-apartheid sanctions to South Africa.
Ms Buffini has gone on record that she has “no sympathy for Margaret Thatcher or anything she stands for.” Indeed, she has admitted to being “glad when she was dead” and has referred to her as a “monstrous woman” and a “villainess.” But despite her personal antipathy toward the Iron Lady, Ms Buffini has been exceptionally fair and even-handed in her writing, eschewing the opportunity to satirize her or to take any cheap shots. It is a credit to her, not only as a playwright but as a human being, and it has resulted in her having created a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking work that should appeal both to conservatives and progressives (as well as to royalists and anti-royalists alike).