Shakespeare wrote many queens, and not least among them is Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt. Even the unromantic and battle-hardened Enobarbus cannot deny her charm in Antony and Cleopatra, and it is from his mouth that the most famous description of her issues forth: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety”. This bewitching mutability has appropriately been given a new shape by Straylight Australia’s diverse array of queenships – regal, wicked and glistening by turns – in Shakespeare’s Queens: She-Wolves and Serpents.
The show’s premise is a postmortem reunion of three historical celebrities: Elizabeth I, Mary Stuart, and William Shakespeare. Shakespeare is a new arrival to the afterlife, and distinctly surprised to find himself in contemporary Edinburgh, where the theatres are very different from their Elizabethan ancestors. Before he’s had time to get used to a stage without a tiring-house, however, he is drawn into the intermittently violent debate preoccupying both erstwhile monarchs: how should a queen rule? Mary, Queen of Scots, believes that the first duty of a female ruler is to marry and produce heirs, thus securing the line of succession – but to her exasperated cousin, this smacks of self-demotion. Elizabeth stands, on the contrary, for virginity, top-down governance, and “ruling like a king”. This disagreement has outlasted Mary’s beheading (by order of Elizabeth) and Elizabeth’s own death: Shakespeare, the queens decide, could be the one to help them settle it for good.
And thus begins a dizzying, invigorating gallop through comedies, tragedies, and histories alike. “Mary and I will play all the queens”, Elizabeth announces, and they proceed to do just that, with the luckless Shakespeare suborned into filling almost every other role. The versatility that this small company of three actors displays throughout the show is astonishing. Rachel Ferris, Kath Perry and Patrick Trumper are all experienced performers – and they need to be, with this play calling for both stamina and subtlety. None of the Shakespearean roles lasts for more than a few minutes, so Shakespeare’s Queens could easily have disintegrated into muddle or, indeed, felt unsatisfyingly glib: it is a testament to the cast that it does neither. Inevitably there are a few weaker scenes and infelicitous cuts – it is a particular shame to lose the restoration of Queen Hermione from The Winter’s Tale – but overall the play’s structure is intelligent and satisfying, and the acting highly accomplished.
Ferris and Perry drop in and out of their Shakespearean parts, often resuming the roles of the historical queens, Elizabeth and Mary, in order to comment on the scenes they have just performed. This narrative device is not only well-used in tying the episodic elements of the drama together, it also permits a consistently witty contrast between Shakespearean verse and the topical, colloquial jesting – often with a bitter edge, since Mary and Elizabeth can’t forget their shared past – that is interwoven with it. There are so many highlights among the abbreviated Shakespearean scenes that naming favourites means neglecting other excellent moments, but among the particular delights of Shakespeare’s Queens are Richard II’s grief-stricken Isabel, the avidly bloodthirsty Lady Macbeth (soon to be queened, in part through her own efforts), and the original “she-wolf”, Margaret of Anjou – dauntless woman of the first tetralogy. The director of Shakespeare’s Queens, Roz Riley, has put together a jewel of a show that will be eye-opening to lovers of canonical Shakespeare, while to Fringe-goers already enamoured of Shakespearean adaptations, this is an indisputable must-see.
**** – 4 Stars
Shakespeare’s Queens: She-Wolves and Serpents is playing at C eca (venue 50) as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 27th August. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.