History is written by the victors. At least, that’s how the saying goes, and indeed, this does highlight the fact that history is not the objective chronology of events we often think it to be. Human history is recorded by human beings, and as such, these records will of course be shaped by the biases and prejudices of its recorders. It is, perhaps, the oldest basis of story telling, with many of our cultural narratives having been shaped by the retelling of past events, and indeed, many a clever propagandist has done well from reshaping moments of the past to suit the needs of the present. George Orwell recognised this in his novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and organisations like The Black Curriculum are moving to change how our white-biased and white washed history is taught in British schools. William Shakespeare also recognised the power of reshaping the past in the writing of his history plays, which were far more akin to pro-Tudor and pro-Stuart propaganda than real accurate portrayals of history. With the stroke of his quill, Shakespeare was able to conjure up some of the most memorable portrayals of medieval kings and queens, transforming shrewd scoliosis suffering monarchs into murderously Machiavellian hunchbacks, images that still tarnish many of our cultural understandings of historical figures even today. One such figure is that of Queen Margaret, or Margaret of Anjou, wife of the English King Henry VI. Now a largely forgotten queen, Margaret was instrumental in the machinations of the Lancastrian forces in the infamous Wars of the Roses, and just like her York adversary, the future King Richard III, Margaret of Anjou does not escape Shakespeare’s brutal warping of history in his epic trilogy of plays, Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3. But it is precisely this now overlooked queen of England that drives the drama of Downpour Theatre Company’s production of Queen Margaret.
Created by Jeanie O’Hare, Queen Margaret takes Shakespeare’s original text from the Henry VI trilogy and parts of Richard III to form a play that focuses on the woman that was arguably the greatest driving force behind the red rose of House Lancaster. We follow Margaret’s rise and fall from a young and controversial French princess, into an empathetic queen and mother before her final act as a vengeance driven warrior. Her’s is a complex tale of moral compromise, self discovery and the ever shifting tides of war, and as her ever present ghostly companion, Joan of Arc highlights, our present and futures are always shaped by the actions of the past. It is a tangly text for any theatre company to delve into, with an enormous scope of action and timescale, and it would be easy for the lofty heights of this play to crumble under the weight of its own magnitude, and this is a trap Downpour Theatre’s production unfortunately falls into.
While there are strong performances from the cast, with Sarah Wiggins’ York bringing the bite and zeal of the warrior duke with razor sharp precision, James Locke offering a nuanced and detailed performance as the delicate King Henry, and Kate Raw’s Hume providing moments of comedic levity and heartbreaking tragedy to this blue blooded turmoil, the production somewhat loses itself within the enormous, labyrinthine world of O’Hare’s creation. As someone who has performed and studied Shakespeare for years, I was disappointed to see that Margaret, the woman Shakespeare calls the “she-wolf of France” with a “tiger’s heart wrapt in a woman’s hide”, had so little fire and verve in Sarah Cullyer’s performance. While there were fleeting moments of strength in Cullyer’s portrayal, none felt enough to warrant York’s final devastating character assassination; Shakespeare’s rich text should always be the basis upon which to mine for facets of a character’s personality, so to remove Margaret’s ferocity and primal power felt like a disservice to the text. Indeed, there was a nervousness throughout the direction of the play, with actors often losing the light on stage as they moved into the shadows of spotlights, and the show almost became comedic as York’s children had to awkwardly step over their mother’s body and ignore its existence for several scenes as it remained on stage for a moment of emotional pay off that did not quite dramaturgically succeed in making up for Edward and Richard’s corpse hopping. Director Andy Cullyer’s work shines brightest in the moment following the devastating Battle of Towton, as the bodies of the fallen rise up to join the ensemble cast in a haunting rendition of choral singing, but this moment of powerful simplicity is undercut by the show’s other more roughshod scenes.
This is an incredibly difficult play to stage, and though this production falls at many of the hurdles, there is no doubting the talent of the cast. While more could have been done in the fine tuning of the direction, and perhaps some cuts made to the script to streamline the production for its company, it is nonetheless an interesting tale that deserves wider audience recognition.