“Margaret of Anjou”, By Jove Theatre

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Oh my goodness I have been missing this kind of theatre, and I didn’t even realise until I went. A small white-painted wood-floored gallery under a railway arch in south London with one toilet and the “bar” a table run by an artistic director selling crisps and plastic cups of bag-in-a-box wine, and a collaborative poem about the project hanging on the wall, and gosh when I walked in I just felt a wave of artistic comfort and joy.

“Margaret of Anjou: a new play by Shakespeare” is taken from four of Shakespeare’s plays: Henry VI parts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III. Prof. Liz Schafer and dramaturg Philippa Kelly created a ‘new’ play about the character Margaret of Anjou – who is in all four plays, and is the character with the most lines in Shakespeare – out of Shakespeare’s text.

I first saw this play in a staged reading at Royal Holloway University of London, where Schafer works and most of the company seems to come from. I liked the reading (especially the free wine, <3 university theatre), but the play felt fragmented: at the time, I thought the problem with sticking together unchanged text like this is that, unfortunately, Shakespeare’s so good at dramaturgy that you can really feel the missing parts. EG – in Margaret’s first scene, she is captured by the earl of Suffolk, who immediately falls in love with her and flirts in rhyme. It’s quite silly. The thing is that in Shakespeare’s play, we have just seen another English lord capture a French woman – the duke of York taking Joan of Arc prisoner, and leading her off to be burned alive. Without that echo of danger and death, the Margaret-Suffolk scene felt like a weightless romcom. And her next few scenes mostly involve other people talking, while she pipes up occasionally: her character doesn’t really get cracking until well into Henry VI Part Two. Constructing a coherent play, instead of a “best of Margaret” anthology, out of her scenes seemed difficult and I didn’t think the text used at the RHUL readthrough succeeded (although the acting was all-round very solid, I’m particularly remembering Robert Heard as York and SJ Brady as Eleanor Gloucester and Richard III).

By Jove’s opening scene was very much not a romcom! Suffolk (Ella Garland) forcibly captured Margaret (Adi Lev), tying her wrists tightly with a red cord and physically preventing her from leaving even when he said he’d let her go. Margaret’s rhyming responses to Suffolk’s come-ons were more defensive parrying than flirtatious banter, and when he asked if she would “consent” to marry Henry VI and move to England, she agreed out of self-preservation, not ambition. We saw him prepping her for travel to London, outfitting her in a floaty white veil, and she entered the English court pacing to “Zadok the Priest”, backlit and framed in gauze. There was great intentional comedy moment when Suffolk unveiled her just as the choir kicked in, the lights went up on her face and Henry (Siân Mayhall-Purvis) goggled. In Margaret’s first speech to Henry she had obviously been coached by Suffolk, who was prompting her; she was learning the rules of her new world.

There were just four actors, which led to some really illuminating doubling: Suffolk, usually played as Margaret’s genuine love interest and ally, was doubled with her great enemy the duke of York, which tilted reading Suffolk as a minor antagonist for Margaret to overcome and step up over, not her supportive accomplice. Their private scene where Margaret complains to Suffolk about her husband, and Suffolk makes clear his real devotion to her, was cut; I can’t remember their parting scene, which is usually tragic-romantic but I don’t think was here.

The other key doublings were Richard Gloucester with Young Clifford (SJ Brady again, hooray!), the violently vengeful sons of murdered fathers: Clifford’s line explaining why he’s murdering little baby Rutland – “Thy father killed my father, that’s enough” – could be the motto of both characters. And Henry VI with Elizabeth Woodville (Siân Mayhall-Purvis), both righteous in an almost otherworldly way – her line readings in the last scene, as Elizabeth stared off into space as if she were already somewhere else, were particularly good. (Oh, and all four the actors were women. It was great.)

Sometimes doubled characters (major or minor) would be in the same scene, and to show which character they were playing, they’d have a signifier – a red handkerchief, a white rose – in each hand, and switch which arm they were holding in front of them. I mention this only because it was simple, clear, and seamless to follow: I think having to talk to yourself onstage must be one of the most terrifying things for an actor because the risk of looking goofy is so high. No one looked goofy.

Margaret’s trajectory went from learning to cope, to learning to succeed, and her line after Suffolk’s death when she tells Henry “I should not mourn, but die for thee” was PERF: chilling and determined, the moment when she flips from just trying to stay steady on her feet to icily vowing, “if you fuck me over I am going to fuck you over twice as hard”. By Jove added movements to music (movement director Susanna Dye), and narration before each scene, to clarify the story, which also helped make it into a coherent piece of theatre.

To show the escalating battles between York and Lancaster, York and Henry glared at each other and slapped roses on the ground, and gosh, when you hit them hard, roses pop. Petals exploding everywhere, and headless stem carcasses. I know Propeller’s adaptation of the Henry VIs, Rose Rage, sliced up red cabbage heads to show deaths, and Michael Boyd’s trilogy for the RSC used floaty sad rose petals, but this was the first time I’ve seen the physical forms of real red and white roses used so violently, and it was grim. After the battle of Wakefield, Margaret tore down the banner of the house of York to release torn-up red and white roses, which scattered on the floor, and they really did feel like mangled bodies.

At the interval, the bar was covered in English flags, and a fantastically ironic set list was playing, including “Jerusalem” and Holst’s Planets (the Jupiter movement was used as the tune of “I Vow To Thee, My Country”, the insipid hymn that was Diana’s favourite and played at Winston Churchill’s funeral). It was a bit mean and a lot great.

‘New material’ is credited to Wendy Haines and Alexander Woodward, and aside from the narration, the main new text I noticed was a speech for York to give his soldiers, to parallel the one Margaret has in Shakespeare. The new speech drew on the ‘she-wolf’ image York uses later in the play, and on familiar anti-immigrant white nationalist rhetoric of foreign animals threatening the security of English families at home. (It sounded like it might have been from Richard or Richmond’s speeches in Richard III, but I don’t think it was?) And when Margaret captures York and he gives Shakespeare’s big-money “she-wolf” speech, I realised how much that tirade – where usually I’m just distracted by the misogyny – is also full of anti-foreigner sentiment: he calls Margaret a “blood-bespotted Neapolitan”, “an Amazonian trull”, “as opposite to every good as the Antipodes are unto us”, “more inhuman…than tigers of Hyrcania”: Margaret is not only the opposite of a woman, she is foreign, and I’d never really heard how much York rings that bell.

Lev’s Margaret never lost her light French accent. But it didn’t feel like this was telling us something from the English perspective, marking her as a foreign individual; because the play was framed as Margaret’s story, the signifier read from her perspective, marking England as a foreign space. All the women in the first 5/6th of the play were cut, meaning that the ‘England’ Margaret entered was a world inhabited exclusively by men.

The last scene, where Margaret bickers and mourns with her enemy York’s wife and daughter-in-law before leaving for France, was triumphalist in a way I had never thought of before. In the RHUL readthrough, the play felt like it petered out: I wanted more of Richard III, and thought this was just an inherent flaw with cherrypicking scenes out of such a strong play. The resonant line at that readthrough was Margaret’s hope “that [she] may live to say, ‘The dog is dead'” – which made the play feel unfinished, without the hoped-for catharsis of Richard’s death on stage.

But in the By Jove staging, the line that felt like coming full circle was unexpectedly Margaret’s last, the final words of the play: “Farewell, York’s wife, and queen of sad mischance / These English woes will make me smile in France.” Margaret walked to the light switch, looked back on England, turned the lights off with an audible clunk and walked out. You’ve had your try, look: I didn’t choose to come here, I did my best, and now you’re all fucked and I’m leaving. You made your bed. Bye. Don’t call.

It flips Shakespeare’s association of France with the female, and the unnaturally dangerous, on its head: for Margaret, and possibly all women (- and maybe just everyone? It’s not like the men in England are doing so great), the witchy feminine ‘France’ is a healthy place, and the masculine combative ‘England’ is deadly broken.

Being able to triumphantly walk out on a toxic structure is in part from having nothing left to lose, but also depends on having a France to go to: Elizabeth and the duchess of York don’t have one, for example. (I’m also just now remembering how McKellen’s film of Richard III, for example, had the Duchess of York – who is conflated with Margaret – getting into a plane and flying off – to where?) But the question of what kind of possibilities exist outside broken patriarchy doesn’t need to be answered in the play; it’s raised so well I hardly noticed it happening until the punch line, which was killer. It might be suggested by the small steel tiara of marguerites that Margaret wears, that she took with her from France to England and back: a hint that another life could be not only strong, but blossoming.

It’s on at Battersea’s Gallery on the Corner until tomorrow, though it’s sold out (I have heard rumours of returns). I hope they’ll bring it back – a week-long run is much too short for a production this precise and interesting.

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