The woman behind Queen Anne's reign

By Vincent Dowd
Arts reporter, BBC News

image copyrightManuel Harlan/RSC
image captionCunniffe's TV credits include The Lakes and Coronation Street.

The taste for books, plays and programmes about the British monarchy never seems to go away. Yet even now few people know much about Queen Anne, who reigned for just 12 years.

A new play for the Royal Shakespeare Company aims to change that, delving into the Queen's long and intimate relationship with the aristocrat Sarah Churchill.

Playwright Helen Edmundson, author of Queen Anne, admits that until three years ago she knew almost nothing about Britain's last Stuart monarch.

"But I'm sure that's true of many people who otherwise think they're pretty clued up about British history. Compared to Elizabeth I or Victoria she barely registers: it's true her reign was relatively short but that's not the whole explanation."

The idea of shedding light on that reign (1702-1714) came from RSC artistic director, Greg Doran. "Greg thought that as a playwright I'd find Anne and her times fascinating. He was right."

Anne was 37 when she took the throne. Her father, James II, had died only the previous year but he had been kicked out of power in 1688 for his Catholic beliefs.

His reign was followed by the joint monarchy of William of Orange and his wife Mary, who was Anne's elder sister. In contrast to their father, both sisters were raised as Protestants.

image copyrightManuel Harlan/RSC
image captionThe play looks at the political scheming going on at the beginning of the eighteenth century.

Anne Somerset, the author of one of the few biographies of Queen Anne, says in some ways she appeared utterly unqualified to be queen.

"She was very poorly educated and chronically shy. She was often in appalling ill-health - probably with an auto-immune disease and a form of arthritis. But in some ways she coped well with the challenges."

Anne never produced a healthy heir: in her teens she married Prince George of Denmark but her pregnancies almost all ended in miscarriage, although one son survived to the age of 11.

In the new play Prince George is a secondary character. The focus is the intense relationship between Anne and Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough. Some have suggested it verged on - or in fact became - a gay romance.

Edmundson says the relationship went back to girlhood.

"Sarah was a little bit older and I think that even then Anne had just worshipped her: Sarah was glamorous and beautiful and that dynamic persisted.

"They were very close but I think Sarah was always the dominant person, even when Anne was queen."

The play sketches in the political scheming going on at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The playwright says she was fascinated by the role of the press just emerging in London's taverns and coffee houses - and draws parallels with the rise of the internet today.

But for most theatre-goers it will be the doomed friendship between the two main characters which draws them in.

image copyrightManuel Harlan/RSC
image captionMcElhone established herself as a Hollywood star in films such as The Truman Show, Ronin and Solaris.

In the Stratford production, the Queen is played by actress Emma Cunniffe while Sarah Churchill is played by Natascha McElhone, who starred in the US TV series Californication.

McElhone confesses to the standard lack of knowledge of the period. "I remembered seeing a picture of Sarah in the National Portrait Gallery and I knew she and the Duke of Marlborough built Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire - but that's about it. So when I read about the intimacy with the Queen I was fascinated."

"Sarah and Anne's relationship was very close, but on stage it's ambiguous - which I'm sure is as Helen intended," says Cunniffe, who read biographies of the Queen after winning the role. "Letters from Anne to Sarah still exist and it's clear there was a deep, deep love between them - until it all went wrong."

Sarah undoubtedly used her influence at court to further the career of her husband, the Duke of Marlborough. But the Queen realised that, whatever her profound feelings for Sarah, she was being manipulated. Eventually she found another favourite and Sarah Churchill was cast aside.

McElhone says the centre of her performance is showing how Sarah feels when she falls out of favour with the woman she genuinely cared for, but who had also been of use both politically and financially.

"We leave it unclear exactly what intimacies have and have not been enjoyed. But it had been a passionate friendship. Sarah Churchill has a reputation for being conniving and scheming, which may have been deserved at times - but I think there was something softer within her."

Biographer Somerset says that when she wrote her book about Anne she found it hard to like Sarah.

"Sarah was a remarkable woman, full of intelligence and vitality. Politically she was very acute. But she could also be a bully and was often totally unreasonable.

image copyrightManuel Harlan/RSC
image captionQueen Anne was the last of the Stuart monarchs. She reigned for just 12 years.

"When Anne became queen, Sarah expected to be in a position of enormous political influence. But Anne knew, as monarch, she had to assert herself and become more self-confident. Sarah could never adapt to the situation.

"The question of whether Queen Anne was a lesbian is a very interesting one. If you read the letters she wrote to Sarah as a young woman they are passionate outpourings of devotion. You might immediately think perhaps they were having an affair.

"But you also have to bear in mind that in that era women did have passionate friendships with no erotic undertones. I don't doubt that her marriage to Prince George was a happy and devoted one.

"Yet as things soured, Sarah began to spread rumours that Anne had a relationship with the woman who ousted her as royal favourite, Abigail Masham."

Anne Somerset and Helen Edmundson agree no one can now be entirely sure of the nature of the relationship between Anne and Sarah. They both think we should be wary of assuming that attitudes to sex, friendship and romance were the same as they are today.

As well as Helen Edmundson's play, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is working on a film about the same events with Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman expected to take the main roles. Three hundred years after her death, Queen Anne may finally be stepping from the shadows.

Queen Anne is playing at the RSC's Swan theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

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