Start with historical fact. Queen Anne of England, who ruled from 1702 to 1707, had a longstanding friendship with John and Sarah Churchill, who would become the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. Anne became queen on the death of her brother-in-law, William III (he of William and Mary). Married to Prince George of Denmark, Anne would carry only one child of 18 pregnancies to birth. The boy died at age 11. She would be succeeded by George I who established the House of Hanover.
For several years before and after Anne became queen, the Churchills wielded great influence. John’s fame skyrocketed with the victory at Blenheim; his reward was a dukedom and land near Oxford to build a suitable home – what became Blenheim Palace. And then the Churchills fell from favor, Sarah first, followed by John.
That’s what we know. How it might have happened is the subject of the play Queen Anne written by Helen Edmundson and staged in Stratford-upon-Avon at the Swan Theatre in 2015 and restaged in London at the Royal Haymarket Theatre in 2017. The 2017 performance starred Ramola Garai as Sarah Churchill and Emma Cunniffe as Queen Anne.
The play is fascinating. Queen Anne begins as an insecure princess, desperate to bear an heir, resisting William III’s attempt to have her meet her possible Hanover successors, and ends as a woman who knows her own mind, one who has understood how those closest to her have used her for their own ends.
The play artfully blends parliamentary and palace politics, the concern over an heir, the War of the Spanish Succession (in which England and its allies fought Louis XIV over who would sit on the Spanish throne), and how politics played out in satire and broadsheets. The authors Daniel Defoe and Johnathan Swift are characters in the play involved in writing short comedies about the Queen and the Churchills for their own private amusements, until Sarah Churchill stumbles into them and decides to use them for her own benefit.
Edmundson is a British screenwriter and playwright. In addition to Queen Anne (2015), Edmundson’s original plays include The Clearing (1993), Mother Teresa is Dead (2002), The Heresy of Love (2012), and Mary Shelley (2012). Her plays adapted from literary works include Anna Karenina, The Mill on the Floss, War and Peace, Orestes, Gone to Earth, Life is a Dream, Swallows and Amazons, Coram Boy, and Therese Raquin. Her film and television scripts include The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (2014), An Inspector Calls (2015), and Mary Magdalene (2018).
Queen Anne is a fascinating study of power politics, friendship, trust, and betrayal.
Related: Review of the 2017 play by The Guardian.
Top photograph: A scene from the London play, starring Emma Cunniffe and Romola Garai.
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