Queen Spars With Thatcher, Nazis in Fledermaus: Review

Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher are sparring yet again.

Moira Buffini’s “Handbagged,” a broadly comic piece now at the Tricycle Theatre in North London, is about the fractious relationship between the former Prime Minister (in power from 1979 to 1990) and her monarch. They had private weekly meetings throughout the period, and Buffini makes a shrewd guess at what really went on between the two women.

To help her, she doubles roles. An older Mrs. T. (Stella Gonet) and older Queen (Marion Bailey) watch and comment on meetings between their younger counterparts (Fenella Woolgar and Clare Holman respectively). Two male actors take all the rest of the roles.

The women discuss the major events of Thatcher’s premiership: majority rule in Zimbabwe, the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana, the Falklands War, the closing of coal mines, and so on.

“Philip and I had put money on the result,” the younger monarch says about the election which swept Thatcher to power.

“No we had not,” retorts the older Queen.

By using this comical contrarian device, Buffini has her theatrical cake and cleverly eats it too. Controversial thoughts are spoken, and then safely contradicted by the same person.

While it keeps things snappy and is often amusing, it also feels a little like hedging to avoid any disputes.

Weighted Scales

It’s clear too where Buffini’s sympathies lie, which weakens the potential for drama. The Queen is kind, wily, gossipy and nicely center-left, while Thatcher is hectoring, dogmatic and emotionally distant. The scales are safely weighted.

Even the composure Thatcher displayed after the 1984 bomb that nearly killed her is challenged.

“Such bizarre forced jollity at a moment like that,” says the older Queen. “Profoundly impressive. But at what cost?”

Complex it isn’t: Superbly well acted it is, and Indhu Rubasingham (the Tricycle’s artistic director) keeps the tone enjoyably fast and light on a spare, minimal set. Fenella Woolgar is particularly impressive as the younger Thatcher, perfectly capturing her voice and carefully soft consonants. Marion Bailey mines all the possible humor in the role of the older Queen too.

There’s been plenty of film, TV, and theater interest in Thatcher recently. We’re still waiting for the portrait that will get to the heart of her challenging complexity. Rating: ***.

ENO ‘Fledermaus’

Christopher Alden’s new production of “Die Fledermaus” at ENO takes a bold new look at Strauss’s operetta.

He sets the action in an off-kilter expressionistic version of the early 1930s. There are creepy shadows, exaggerated angular gestures in the acting, and lots of transvestites.

For a while it gives the fluffy tale of adultery a dark and delicious Freudian kick. Then, when brutal Nazi-like thugs arrive to bully everyone in the prison scene in Act 3, the energy seeps away. The staging becomes slow, stodgy and unthreatening.

Conductor Eun Sun Kim does a terrifically sparky job in the pit, and some of the singing is great. Mezzo Jennifer Holloway makes a memorable impression as a warm-voiced and psychopathic Prince Orlofsky. An evening of hits and misses. Rating: ***.

“Handbagged” is at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn. http://www.tricycle.co.uk or +44-20-7328-1000

“Die Fledermaus” is in repertory at English National Opera. http://www.eno.org or +44-20-7845-9300

What the Stars Mean:
 *****      Exceptional
 ****       Excellent
 ***        Good
 **         So-so
 *          Mediocre
(No stars) Poor

Muse highlights include the London and New York weekend guides, Lewis Lapham on history, Jeremy Gerard on U.S. theater, and Greg Evans and Craig Seligman on movies.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)