Queen Margaret

The history of our world often consigns the role of women to mere supporting cast. Think of Camille Claudel who probably sculpted many of Rodin’s most important works. So it is with Queen Margaret, pushed into the background of four of Shakespeare’s plays and yet a dominant force of both the politics and the battles of the War of the Roses. I’m watching Queen Margaret at the Royal Exchange and what I want to see is her coming across as a strong character in her own right. Is this a role that an actor would aspire to?

There is an excellent interview with Queen Margaret writer Jeanie O’Hare in the Guardian, where she says that ‘the words are largely Shakespeare’s, drawn from his early history cycle’. Yet Margaret was never a central character and without knowing the original plays I suspect they did not pay tribute to her leadership qualities. The DNA remains from the original lines written as a supporting role, often to further the plot as opposed to develop character. Despite a stunning performance from Jade Anouka, we do not fully understand the motivation behind this woman’s actions, we do not see the internal turmoil, nor do we see complete justification for her acts. Was she really driven by the ghost of the kindred spirit of Jean d’Arc?  What was inside her own head? How did she reconcile the warring factions? Jean d’Arc is a clever mechanism but we need more underneath to build Margaret’s motivation. In the same way as Macbeth layers the witches’ prophecies into his own mind we need to see the base character of Margaret onto which Jean d’Arc is layered

Shakespeare writes well about women but he was always been constrained by the conflicting forces of the highly patriarchal society, men playing all the female roles, and the presence in his world of several strong, highly influential women whom he could not offend, including Elizabeth I. What risk of a strong female lead being seen as a caricature of the Queen? It is therefore only right that we look anew at Queen Margaret in the context of today’s world. And so it is. This production is performed in modern dress with some modern lines, although mostly drawn from original Shakespearean text. But if the place of women in society has changed, why not reset the context? Why not build a truly contemporary model of Margaret?

What I most loved about this production is the way it addressed contemporary themes. It’s not set in any particular period. It appears to originate in the Middle Ages yet at one point a rioter walks through with a stolen TV. It’s meant for any time. Today we seem to have reached a point where we inherently trust our leaders to do the right thing, even when we complain about their actions. What Queen Margaret represents is a woman who is prepared to do the right thing for her adopted country as everyone around her follows personal agendas. The play shows us that leaders act in their own interests, even if this hurts the common person; the ‘common person’ is in fact an effective character in this play. Leaders gain and lose countries to gain power and wealth for themselves, even if the population suffers. Leaders impose austerity and make people suffer and do not care. It’s what’s happening today in our world but we don’t always see it.

Perhaps I’ve been harsh. The glass is at least three quarters full. There is in fact so much that I love about this play. Yes, it is a paradox whether to add new lines to flesh out the character of Margaret, but I believe that history does in fact need to be rewritten to place the true role of women like Margaret into more prominence. This play is a remarkable achievement but I’d like to see it go one step further.

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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