Queen Elizabeth II carries many titles: Her Majesty, Defender of the Faith, Head of the Commonwealth. To these we can now add Columnist of the Guardian.
Such is the image of Elizabeth Regina presented in the play Handbagged, a slightly daft exercise in wishcasting by playwright Moira Buffini, who has the Queen spewing left-wing talking points all over Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in their weekly meetings. The monarchy, which seemed a bit wobbly as recently as the 1990s, has had the last laugh. It now rests so secure that the fulminating Left that used to mock it as reactionary and retrograde has now spun around and started insisting the Queen was secretly on its side all along. The Queen is, as usual, keeping her own counsel. One must get used to having others project their views on one.
Taking place on a single minimalist set with six actors, Handbagged (at 59E59 Theaters through June 30) presents two versions of each of the two principals. Called “T” and “Q” in the program, the 60-something Thatcher (Kate Fahy) and Queen (Anita Carey) share the stage with younger versions of themselves as they appeared in the 1970s, dubbed “Mags” (Susan Lynskey) and “Liz” (Beth Hylton). (Two men, Cody Leroy Wilson and John Lescaut, play all supporting roles including a palace footman, cabinet ministers, Rupert Murdoch, and Nancy and Ronald Reagan.)
The theatrical device of having each character be judged and contradicted by another version of herself adds little to the play since neither lady changed much late in life. Mostly the presence of two Elizabeths and two Margarets simply subtracts clarity from the show, with the older characters saying things like “I never said that” or “I never thought that.” Mrs. Thatcher and the Queen make poor vessels for postmodern ideas about subjective reality or the conflicts of memory. Moreover, the playwright’s habitual breaking of the fourth wall — actors tell us who they’re playing or beg for an intermission — is meant to be larkish but doesn’t belong here. Peter Morgan’s 2013 play The Audience, which imagined what went on during the weekly meetings between the sovereign and prime ministers from Winston Churchill to Gordon Brown, was a far more skillful and plausible rendering of dramas that may or may not have taken place behind closed doors.
Morgan’s inability to stop himself putting his imaginary Queen to bat for his ideological side is taken to a very silly extreme in Handbagged. Possibly the most ridiculous moment of this almost wholly implausible piece comes when the Queen’s second cousin Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten is murdered by an IRA bomb and the sovereign seems more annoyed with Mrs. Thatcher’s failure to call her right away than with the homicidal terrorists, who also killed three others in the blast. Throughout the play, the IRA is portrayed as a sort of unfortunate background element, more like bad weather than a hateful gang of evildoers. Thatcher herself was nearly killed by the IRA, in the Brighton Hotel bombing of 1984. It would have ended her if she had been in her suite’s bathroom at the time, but she indomitably gave a speech as scheduled less than seven hours later. The play (unlike the 2011 film The Iron Lady) offers very little respect to Mrs. Thatcher for this or any other action, instead positioning as heroes her disloyal foreign minister Geoffrey Howe and — I can’t believe I am typing these words — serial Labour loser Neil Kinnock, whose desperate fear-mongering in a typically nonsensical 1983 campaign speech is presented as prophecy: “If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. And I warn you not to grow old.” Kinnock lost in a landslide and Britain boomed, with its citizens continuing to be free to “be ordinary,” whatever that was supposed to mean.
Thatcher’s successes are ignored, as are the failings of her opponents — how she even landed in Number 10 Downing Street seems to be a mystery to this particular playwright — while the Falkland Islands War is portrayed entirely as a negative, the source of spatting between Thatcher and Reagan on the one hand and Thatcher and the Queen on the other. Thatcher’s Britain is framed as a hell-hole of miners’ strikes, race riots and inequality, all of them happening as the Queen vigorously challenged Thatcher’s policies behind the scenes. “Isn’t the purpose of socialism to bring people out of poverty?” the Queen asks Thatcher as the latter is made to look like a lunatic for disagreeing. “One sees these young men in the City really reveling in greed — lording it over the unemployed,” says the Queen, sounding more like Elizabeth Warren than Elizabeth Regina. Peripheral figures such as Murdoch check in to announce, “If men with any sense were in charge we would hardly need democracy at all!”
The play is, in short, a thing of whimsy aimed at the unfortunate kind of person for whom Neil Kinnock is as magical as Harry Potter. No worries, Guardianistas: Regardless of how badly things may go for you in reality, you can always rewrite it in accordance with the dictates of the imagination. It’s easier to do that than think about being not merely defeated but actually humiliated by Margaret Thatcher.