Helen Edmundson's play Queen Anne tells the story of one of England’s little-known sovereigns, her friendship with Sarah Churchill and the birth of the free press in England at the turn of the 18th century. It was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and premiered at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, on 20 November 2015.
The play opens with a song satirising current political events, penned by a group of satirists whose influence grows throughout the play. Princess Anne has been plagued by ill health all her life and, despite seventeen pregnancies, has produced no heirs with her husband, Prince George of Denmark. The Union of King William III and Anne’s sister Queen Mary was also childless, leaving Anne in succession for the throne. With the death of King William in 1702, Anne becomes Queen. England is at war and in a Grand Alliance with the protestant nations against the Catholic Spanish and French sovereigns to prevent ‘The Pretender’ King Louis’ dominance in Europe. As Anne grieves for her recently deceased father and the loss of what will be her final pregnancy, her close advisors seek to influence her from all corners. Sarah Churchill, her intimate friend since childhood, is granted key positions in the Royal Household and seeks to advise and manipulate Anne to further her own political agenda and career, and that of her husband, the Duke of Marlborough. Lord Chancellor Goldolphin, together with Sarah’s husband Marlborough (trusted Commander-in-Chief of the allied forces), exert pressure to their own ends. Anne begins to understand her power as she becomes increasingly involved and informed in political matters. Sarah pushes the Whig agenda that supports her husband’s wars, but Anne is drawn to advisors who share her religious views and support a strong monarchy. As a result, her friendship with Sarah starts to unravel and Anne begins to find new allies. Sarah fears she is being replaced in Anne’s affection by a new member of the royal household, Abigail Hill, adding personal tension to the political difference between them. As tensions rise, Godolphin is dismissed by Anne and Sarah turns to the ruthless, increasingly bold satirists for help. Prince George dies. Despite a string of notable victories won by the Duke of Marlborough including at Blenheim, Anne uncovers his betrayal and suspends him from his position. Sarah and the Duke of Marlborough are dismissed from court and retreat to Europe and Anne brokers peace, finding her voice as Queen.
The RSC production was directed by Natalie Abrahami and designed by Hannah Clark. The cast was Daisy Ashford, Jonathan Broadbent, Robert Cavanah (as John Churchill), Jonathan Christie, Emma Cunniffe (as Queen Anne), Daniel Easton, Michael Fenton Stevens, Richard Hope, Natascha McElhone (as Sarah Churchill), Hywel Morgan, Beth Park, Carl Prekopp, Jenny Rainsford, Elliott Ross, Anna Tierney, Tom Turner and Ragevan Vasan.