Queen Margaret

Jeanie O'Hare, taken from William Shakespeare
Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre

Queen Margaret (Jade Anouka) Credit: Johan Persson
Queen Margaret (Jade Anouka), Prince Edward (Islam Bouakkaz) and Henry VI (Max Runham) Credit: Johan Persson
Clifford (Samuel Edward-Cook), Queen Margaret (Jade Anouka), Henry VI (Max Runham), Prince Edward (Islam Bouakkaz), Somerset (Kwami Odoom) Credit: Johan Persson

This new play at the Royal Exchange is one of two opening to press on the same night in Manchester in which female characters in Shakespeare are brought to special prominence.

Playwright Jeanie O'Hare has focussed on Margaret of Anjou, the French wife of English King Henry VI, who features prominently in Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy and in Richard III, but is never thought of as one of Shakespeare's great roles for women. According to O'Hare, this is because "we have to watch 12 hours of Shakespeare to understand her", and so she has edited the plays "from 12 hours of stage time down to two" (actually nearer three) to tell the story of this extraordinary English queen.

After the strong King Henry V, his son is portrayed as weak and indecisive, ill-equipped to deal with the squabbles between his lords and the claims of the Yorkists that their line has more entitlement to the throne as Henry's Lancastrian grandfather, Henry Bolingbroke, usurped it from Richard II. Margaret, despite being only 15 when she left behind her native France to marry the King, proves to be the stronger, more decisive force in the court.

However she has a confidante following her around in the form of the restless spirit of Joan of Arc, bringing with her French bitterness over Agincourt and the pain of her own treatment by the English.

The Henry VI plays aren't often produced so I'm not too familiar with the originals, but O'Hare's script blends Shakespeare's words with her own so well that I certainly couldn't detect the join—I suspect some of the more jarring modernisations appeared during rehearsals rather than through the script.

Like in many of Shakespeare's plays, you are faced at the start with a stage full of similar people named after counties and it takes a while to work out who is who and what the political situation is between them, but this does gradually become clear. It does work as a play in itself about Margaret, told with the confidence of a writer who knows her material very well, and Margaret doesn't have to be on stage all the time in order to tell it.

Elizabeth's Freestone's production is entirely in modern dress—Amanda Stoodley has produced an effective design that's unusually simple and restrained for the Royal Exchange—which largely works, but it's always slightly jarring when people in business suits talk about going into battle when they look like their biggest ever battle was with the office photocopier.

Jade Anouka gives a constantly compelling performance in the title role, opposite Max Runham's rather childish and incapable Henry, whose hand goes to his head whenever asked to make a decision as though he is about to collapse. Lucy Mangan brings the bitterness of Joan of Arc to England, accompanied by some savage wit.

The production is colour-blind, but not strictly gender-blind, as some of the 'lords' of the court, while still referred to by that title, are changed to female characters. Freestone says in the programme that this "brings to life the story of identity and power and family", but that would have been there anyway whatever the sex of the characters or actors. It does change the nature of Margaret's relationship with the court, and of York's final attack on her for being 'unwomanly' as she is also a woman—a mother—taking part in a ruthless battle.

That's not to take anything away from Lorraine Bruce, who portrays York with strength and power, or Bridgitta Roy, whose side-switching Warwick she gives integrity and commitment.

The first half is long, but it kept my attention throughout, but the shorter second half felt much longer to me as the plot wasn't sufficient to sustain it and there was a lot of fighting and long musings.

However this is a remarkable achievement with a compelling central performance in a role that is now a new strong female role in Shakespeare.

Reviewer: David Chadderton