Theatre review: Queen Margaret – Royal Exchange Theatre

Adam Lowe

Queen Margaret is a bold new play ‘taken from Shakespeare’ with additional material by Jeanie O’Hare, and directed by Elizabeth Freestone. O’Hare remixes speech and story beats from Shakespeare’s work (mostly the three parts of Henry VI), with her own original writing joining the seams. This mosaic text is an epic narrative that centres the women of Shakespeare, rather than just the men, against a fictionalised retelling of the War of the Roses.

The poetry of Shakespeare mostly remains intact, although the play itself largely eschews blank verse (iambic pentameter). In fact, you usually can’t tell Jeanie’s words from Shakespeare’s, which adds to the authenticity of the experience. At times, though, the dense language, without Shakespeare’s rhythmic ebb and flow, makes the script turgid and slow. Especially in the first act, there’s a tad too much gabbing and not enough happening. When the pace picks up in the second half, the play finally feels like it should have done the whole time – energetic, vital and powerful.

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The actors are all, to a one, outstanding. Indeed, when you move beyond the costume, minimal staging and prop – all of which can be irrelevant if your stars are good – it’s the performances that captivate and make the show what it is.

Jade Anouka’s Queen Margaret is spectacular, striding around in a blue suit which recalls another (in)famous British leader who was keen to fight her own war over disputed turf (Margaret Thatcher). The gender-switched, matriarchal York (Lorraine Bruce) steals every scene she’s in – with all the pleasing menace of a Bad Girls screw but with the gravitas Shakespeare endows. The cast is also thoroughly diverse – in terms of gender, race and disability – and feels contemporary and more relevant as a result. These are all characters we can imagine in our own world – despite the poetic language.

Joan of Arc  (Lucy Mangan) was, at first sight, a weird addition to the play, but I quickly became sold on her. Yes, it’s a tad archetypal, but then, so is most of Shakespeare. Having a huge historic figure (and a feminist icon) appear as the conscience of Margaret gives weight and literary flourish to the text.

Henry VI (Max Runham) was suitably weak, but had a kind of nervous charisma that made him believable. He was a great counterbalance to Margaret’s assertiveness. Hulme (Helena Lymbery), on the other hand, was a utilitarian role, acting as a chorus or narrator, but interjecting some working class perspective into the story.

The decision to opt for modern dress is utilitarian if uninspired (one of the big draws of Shakespeare is the decadent costumes!), and some other touches (like murder by PlayStation controller cord) feel shoehorned in without any real opportunity to explore what they mean (computer games cause violence in our young men? We have a callous attitude to death? Consumerism kills?). That said, I’m nitpicking, and the show is mostly a muscular production that achieves what it sets out to do.

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The Lancashire versus Yorkshire conflict was particularly apt for a play set in Manchester’s own Royal Exchange (and I am a Yorkshire man who moved to Manchester) and added an extra layer of interest for much of the audience, who seemed to enjoy the local accents and rivalry. Making the play primarily one of two women – and mothers – at war was a strong choice. The audience was definitely invested in them and felt their agonies.

Overall, then, this is a gripping and often moving performance, and feels almost like an original Shakespearean play in its own right. I give it a solid 4/5.

Queen Margaret ran 14 September to 6 October 2018.

About Adam Lowe

Adam Lowe is an award-winning author, editor and publisher from Leeds, now based in Manchester. He runs Dog Horn Publishing and is Director and Writing Coordinator for Young Enigma, a writer development programme for LGBT young people. He sometimes performs as Beyonce Holes.