“How can I be a head of a country and yet subject to a husband?” A reasonable question posed by Queen Elizabeth I in Ella Hickson’s taut, short play about women, power and patriarchy.
Elizabeth may be monarch but she still had to inhabit a world in which men dictated the ways in which she may wield her power. Throughout her reign she was under pressure from all sides to marry and reproduce, subject to a constant scrutiny of the womb, her bedsheets examined for signs of bleeding.
In Natalie Abrahami’s deft production, Abigail Cruttenden and Nina Cassells play different iterations of Elizabeth. Both combine radiance with steel.
Designer Ben Stones has covered the Playhouse stage in chipboard and kitted out the two queens in dramatic black dresses that lampoon the iconography of monarchy – one has Elizabeth’s own image emblazoned on it.
After a metatheatrical opening that gleefully sticks up a middle finger at the atmospheric setting of the Wanamaker, it settles into something more theatrically conventional, but no less potent.
Hickson writes with her usual mix of wit, intelligence, empathy and a metallic clarity of thought, interlacing history with anachronism to show how the pressure that women face to attach themselves to a man – or else mark themselves as ‘other’ – remains little changed.
The play shows how marriage for many women, even queens, necessitated a level of sacrifice, of agency, of self, even safety – as Elizabeth well knew having seen her own mother beheaded when she was just three – while illuminating the various survival tactics that women deploy to navigate the world of men.