I, Elizabeth Reviewed

I, Elizabeth REVIEW BY GEORGE FLEETON Dramatic tales of royal history came in two guises late last month. Tom Hooper’s film The King’s Speech dealt with George VI’s lifelong stammer and fear of public speaking and how he addressed the problem with the assistance of some quite unconventional therapy. That was in 1936, when George V – the first of the Windsors – died, older son Edward VII abdicated in order to marry Wallis Simpson, and his younger brother Prince Albert/Bertie/George VI reluctantly took over as King until his death in 1952. His daughter Elizabeth II has been Queen of England ever since. One of her most historic predecessors – last of the Tudors and daughter of Henry VIII – Elizabeth I (1533-1603), reigned for 44 years, and aspects of her struggles to unite a deeply divided and bankrupt state were reflected in Rebecca Vaughan’s solo performance of I,Elizabeth, seen in the Annesley Hall on January 23rd. In also writing this piece, Vaughan chose to dramatise the historical record by integrating fluently four key elements of Elizabeth’s many dilemmas: marriage, succession, her cousin Mary, and religion. In a beautiful, simple set (simulated Arras tapestry) and in full period costume, using the language and inflexions of her greatest non-political contemporaries, Shakespeare, Marlowe and Spenser, all this was conveyed impressively but perhaps too densely for a matinee performance. Her reflections seemed to be centred on the earlier part of her reign, possibly the 1570s, as, for example, neither the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots (1587) nor the defeat of the Spanish Armada a year later are referred to. Elizabeth never married, and the Scottish King, James VI, inherited the throne from her, thus becoming James I of England as well. Much of Elizabeth’s popularity derived from the cult, created round her by others, of the virgin queen, which she seems to have done little to discourage. This of course left the central issue of the succession in the headlines throughout her reign – she was 25 at her coronation and the best educated woman in Europe – and Rebecca Vaughan played with this like a spoilt cat with too many mice, in an articulate, sometimes incisive analysis of how she saw things. Here her sense of loneliness and isolation was nicely underlined in the tempi of both the direction and the performance of the refined direct-to-audience monologue, with its echoes of Juliet, Portia, Ophelia and Desdemona and their fictional travails. The second movement of the piece, given without pause, focused on equally pressing matters of sovereignty: her cousin Mary and Elizabeth’s efforts to re-establish moderate Protestantism as the religion of her kingdom in the face of the threat of Catholic restoration. At this point the tension was ratcheted up significantly as the exteriorisation of this strong character’s inner turmoil became even more soul-searching and heart-felt and the actress conveyed the faith, the prayers, the tears, and the culmination of her journey from the Tower to the Palace, in a spellbinding climax. It would be fascinating to see her take on Victoria, in similar vein, with her 19th century qualities of determination and obstinacy, duty and respectability, underpinned by the kind of power and prosperity no longer in evidence anywhere in the world. For Victoria’s legacy, of letters, speeches, conversations written down by others, and especially newspaper reports, is even more accessible today than that of Elizabeth I. On a wider canvas, for local enthusiasts of the arts, there are introduced screenings of The Big Sleep (with Bogart and Bacall, 1946) in the QFT on February 7th, and Nosferatu (with Max Schreck, 1922) in the Ulster Hall, to the sounds of Martin Baker, organist at Westminster Cathedral, on February 8th. Then there is John Adams’ opera Nixon in China, conducted by the composer, in the Odyssey Cinema on February 12th live from the Met in New York, followed by the only fully staged performance in Northern Ireland of Donizetti’s opera Don Pasquale in the Great Hall on February 24th(tickets £15 from the St Patrick Centre, 028 4461 2233). How’s that for variety in arts-within-our-reach in just two or three weeks?