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Queen Margaret review at Royal Exchange, Manchester – ‘full-blooded but hard-going’

Jade Anouka in Queen Margaret. Photo: Johan Persson Jade Anouka in Queen Margaret. Photo: Johan Persson

Shakespeare’s Margaret is the closest the playwright gets to a full-on warrior queen. The actual Margaret of Anjou was a French royal whose marriage to Henry VI and subsequent actions kick-started one of England’s bloodiest civil wars.

Shakespeare’s version, while not quite up there with Boudicca, paints the king’s consort as a smart political operator who is unafraid to wield a blade, but is ultimately undone by her own dynastical scheming and the machinations of the men around her. She plays a pivotal role in the three Henry VIs and pops up in Richard III, despite the real Margaret having long since been exiled. She is the only character to appear alive in all four plays and has more lines than any other female Shakespearean role.

Writer Jeanie O’Hare’s decision to fillet Margaret’s story from 12 hours of stage time into one cohesive narrative is an ambitious but canny one. Chiefly it’s an opportunity to present the events of the decades-long Wars of the Roses – or, at least, Shakespeare’s rendering of them – from a fresh, uniquely female vantage point. O’Hare’s script also incorporates elements from Henry V and Richard II to fill in both Margaret and the conflict’s backstory, adding a spectral Joan of Arc (puckishly played by Lucy Mangan) to serve as the queen’s conscience and confidant, reminding her of her Gallic roots and warning her not to get swept along by the warring English.

The dialogue remixes Shakespeare’s text and while not – for the most part at least – written in iambic pentameter, matches the rhythms and language of his writing so convincingly that you’d be hard pressed to spot where O’Hare’s words end and his begin. As a result, Elizabeth Freestone’s robustly well-mounted production feels genuinely like a ‘lost’ Shakespearian epic.

The downside to this is a denseness to the early sections – which simultaneously poke fun at and fall prey to the verboseness of court discourse – that weighs down proceedings, at least until the pace quickens and the forces of rebellion amass, aided immeasurably by Adrienne Quartly’s urgent, pounding soundscape and Johanna Town’s pulsing lights. Placing the cast in modern dress and leaning on current tropes (characters pose for selfies and the young Rutland is strangled with a PlayStation cord) feels like a rather too well-trodden path.

What isn’t in question, however, is what a terrific central role the play provides and how much Jade Anouka is equal to the task. She portrays Margaret’s journey from giddy ingenue to embattled mobster with utter conviction, her crowing over the fate of Lorraine Bruce’s Yorkshire-vowelled, matriarchal York and her wails of grief when her son is killed providing the play with its most unforgettable moments.

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Full-blooded, cleverly realised, but sometimes hard-going reimagining of one of Shakespeare’s fiercest female characters