It’s a warzone at 59E59 Theaters right now. Given that the venue is hosting Handbagged, a play about tense relations between Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher, that might sound obvious. But at my performance, a war of words ignited most passionately in the audience–to far more thrilling effect than anything happening on stage, sadly.
Moira Buffini’s play, directed by Indhu Rubasingham in a transfer of her Kiln Theatre production, was immediately disrupted by feedback from a hearing aid. As audience members scolded the offender, the cast gamely tried to soldier on. Finally Anita Carey, speaking as Queen Elizabeth II, declared she would pause while the issue was fixed, attempting to retain all the Queen’s dignity in her delivery. Carey was not prepared for the reply, yelled back by a disgruntled gentleman: “It’s the theater’s fault! The theater’s audio system isn’t working!”
In addressing us at all, Carey was leaning on the already informal nature of Moira Buffini’s script, which is filled with constant asides. More than that, she was relying on an understood set of rules in the audience-actor relationship–rules which do not typically allow for Yelp reviews to be yelled at the stage. I have never, in years of theatergoing, seen breaking the fourth wall go this horribly wrong. “Ah,” muttered Carey at the audio complaint, no doubt wondering what she had done to deserve this. “Well, I think I will have to carry on.”
It’s a little obnoxious, maybe, to suggest that this exchange was the highlight of the night. Disruptive audiences don’t deserve our attention, not even this unusually rowdy Tuesday night crowd. (At intermission, another man announced to the room that a coughing fit victim needed to “just go home.”) Yet Buffini’s play is so rote, so totally unsurprising at every turn, that these bursts of chaos in the room felt like a relief.
Buffini does try to inject some unpredictably into her account of The Queen and Thatcher’s most contentious moments. Chiefly she doubles up the main roles, placing older versions of these powerful figures over the shoulders of their 1980s selves, to both wryly mock and passionately defend. The trick is energizing at first, but ultimately frustrates. By the second act, Lizzie and Maggie’s older selves are negating nearly every scene with a “This didn’t happen,” or “I didn’t say that.” It comes to feel like a cheap out, a way for Buffini to sidestep any need for subtlety. Would Thatcher have ever declared to the Queen’s face that she sounded like a socialist? Probably not, but no matter–she says it, her older self declares she never did, and then we move on.
Buffini’s other device is the presence of ‘Actor 1’ and ‘Actor 2’ (Cody Leroy Wilson and John Lescault) who together play many, many supporting roles: butlers, cabinet ministers, the President of Zambia, Denis Thatcher. At times the two spar with each other for the best roles, acknowledging their own quick-changes and gently mocking the artifice of theater. As with the doubling of the leads, the bit is initially funny, but quickly grows tiresome as the same joke is repeated over and over.
Where the play fails most of all, though, is in its lack of original insight into The Queen or Thatcher. Both have been much-explored, with countless depictions in film, TV, and theater. Admittedly it would be hard, at this point, to find something new to say. But then why write this play at all? Buffini seems content to just hit on multiple points that other artists have already explored with more richness. So we have the forced formalities of weekly audiences, already well-detailed in Peter Morgan’s The Audience; a section at Balmoral, which feels directly lifted from Morgan’s screenplay The Queen; and Thatcher’s falling out with her deputy Geoffrey Howe, which made up key scenes of the Meryl Streep vehicle The Iron Lady. Even Rupert Murdoch appears, here to give a CliffsNotes version of events James Graham is now exploring on Broadway in Ink.
Despite all of this, Handbagged never really becomes boring. That is partly thanks to its wonderfully precise lead performances, which never stray too far into caricature. Anita Carey and Beth Hylton capture the Queen’s humor alongside her reserve, and somehow never bring Helen Mirren to mind. Kate Fahy and Susan Lynskey are both appropriately terrifying as Thatcher, a strong-willed, monstrous figure whom Buffini, to her credit, does not sentimentalize.
Mostly though, Handbagged stays interesting because The Queen and Thatcher are endlessly fascinating figures. Even in a bland play, they remain so. Thatcher is fascinating as a ruthless operator–a political genius who rammed through horrific shifts in Britain’s social fabric. And The Queen? Well, Carey actually nailed it best in her ad-libbed response to my horrible crowd: “I think I will have to carry on.” Through every horror thrown her way–whether it’s Thatcher, Theresa May, or a Tuesday night audience at 59E59–the Queen carries on.