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Theatre in Review: Handbagged (59E59)

Anita Carey, Beth Hylton, John Lescault, Susan Lynskey, Kate Fahy. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The one disappointing thing about Peter Morgan's The Audience -- about Queen Elizabeth II and her many prime ministers -- is the scene in which an importunate and humorless Margaret Thatcher bullies a monarch who, for the entirety of her career, has been a model of poise and dignity. Happily, her Majesty gets a little of her own back in Handbagged, Moira Buffini's gossipy, highly prejudicial, and royally amusing comedy of bad political manners, depicting the always-spiky relationship between the women who presided over Great Britain in the 1980s.

Buffini adopts an original approach, dividing the leading characters in two: Q and T are the older Queen and Thatcher, looking back in acid disapproval, while Liz and Mags are them in Thatcher's heyday as the polarizing figure known as "Attila the Hen" and "the Maggietollah." ("One had to laugh," says Q of these not-too-fond nicknames.) There's trouble brewing from the start. Thatcher, slightly awed at having reached this political pinnacle, says, "The audience, at which one receives the Queen's authority to form a government, comes only once in a lifetime. When one is re-elected, one doesn't go. So that first meeting is unique." "She was my eighth," notes the Queen, dismissively. They quickly tussle over one of Thatcher's notorious remarks ("I said, 'There is a living tapestry of men and women'." "You said, 'Who is society? There is no such thing,' and then you repeated it.") before, the Queen, acting like the irritated mother of a recalcitrant child, says, "This a big discussion. And we're not going to have it now."

And we're off into two crisply paced acts of hairsplitting arguments, passive-aggressive infighting, and murmured insults, all delivered in a deliciously self-conscious theatrical format. They even argue about whether to have an intermission, which, Q insists, is often her favorite part of a play. "I've never been fond of the theatre," she notes, adding, generously, "We saw War Horse recently. We liked the horses."

With a quartet of actresses playing two characters, Buffini composes a four-part invention on the slippery nature of history, cannily exploring the gulf between her characters' public faces and private thoughts. The revisionism cuts both ways: Even as the Queen and her prime minister settle scores, Q and Liz correct each other, as do T and Mags. The text is sprinkled with objections like "I never said that" and "This conversation never happened." At one point T -- who, as any fan of The Ferryman knows, was not beloved in Ireland -- says, "If I had my way, Irish citizens in the UK would lose their right to vote and they'd be subject to the same immigration laws as everybody else." "I never said that," snaps Mags. "But, crikey, I thought it," T replies.

The conflict between the two women has an eerie resonance for contemporary audiences. The Queen, who has never made a secret of her dedication to the British Commonwealth, is appalled at Thatcher's paternalistic attitudes. On the issue of free elections in the former Rhodesia, Thatcher declares, "Black rule is financial suicide." The tension rises when Thatcher (along with Ronald Reagan) refuses to denounce apartheid, insisting, "Were the ANC to take power, South Africa would be plunged into socialist chaos." On the domestic front, the Queen worries about the growing abyss between rich and poor, lamenting "the culture that seems to be prevalent, this insatiable materialism," leaving Thatcher wondering, "Has she forgotten she's the world's wealthiest woman?" When the Queen presses the point, Thatcher adds, "It would be impolite to mention the fact that her Majesty, even as she championed the poor, paid no tax until 1993."

Indeed, in Buffini's view, the Queen is a globalist abroad and a socialist at home, while Thatcher is devoted to free markets and making Great Britain great again. At times, Handbagged plays like the trailer for the horror film of today's politics, in which so many countries are buffeted by winds of neo-fascist populism. Whether the playwright is correct in her assessment of the Queen can never really be known -- as Buffini herself has admitted, the monarch's thoughts necessarily remain forever out of reach -- but she has done her homework and her arguments are both plausible and wittily expressed.

Indhu Rubasingham's sleek, uncluttered production, from Maryland's Round House Theatre, benefits from actresses with advanced skills in the art of verbal knifing. Kate Fahy and Susan Lynskey, as T and Mags, respectively, have mastered Thatcher's self-assurance, especially her unsettlingly controlled voice, suggestive of a funeral director discussing arrangements with the bereaved. Similarly, Anita Carey and Beth Hylton, as Q and Liz, capture that pennywhistle note in the Queen's voice, as well as a personal manner that, rather like a haiku, seems to say a great deal while often expressing little or nothing at all.

The ladies have solid support from Cody Leroy Wilson as, among others, the Zambian politician Kenneth Kaunda, Nancy Reagan (!), and Michael Shea, the Queen's press secretary (who may or may not have leaked her displeasure with Thatcher to the press), and John Lescault as Denis Thatcher ("I'm an honest to God right-winger and I don't care who knows it"), Reagan, and Rupert Murdoch, who, summing up the entire plot of James Graham's Ink, says, "When I bought [the London newspaper] The Sun in 1968 it was a soggy broadsheet. And I said to the editor, 'You're now part of a tabloid revolution. I want a tearaway paper with lots of tits in it'."

The sensible, clutter-free design is defined by Richard Kent's all-white set, with the outlines of the Union Jack carved into the floor, its true colors occasionally restored by Jesse Belsky's lighting. Kent's costumes capture each woman's tweedy, dowdy fashion sense. Carolyn Downing's sound design includes such effects as crowds, sirens, and a shocking explosion.

For all the glittering malice on display, Buffini raises a bit of sympathy for Thatcher, who, following the Falkland Islands War and the bombing of a Conservative Party conference, hardened her attitudes, thus setting the stage for her downfall. (One wonders if Theresa May saw Handbagged and, if so, what she thought of it.) Most of the time, however the clash of viewpoints is what keeps the action buzzing. If there is such thing as a catfight of ideas, Handbagged is it, with both antagonists determined not to surrender an inch. Indeed, the ladies are rather alike, at least when it comes to showing some steel. "Meeting one's PM is like meeting the other side of the coin," the Queen remarks. "We are both Britain." A conundrum indeed. -- David Barbour

(13 June 2019)

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