British playwright Moira Buffini’s Handbagged, presented as part of Brits Off Broadway in a production by the Round House Theatre, Bethesda, Maryland, is a tour de force for six actors: two playing Queen Elizabeth II, two playing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and two male actors playing as many as nine characters each. The older versions of the women seem to comment on the actions of the younger women in asides, while the younger versions appear to be the public personas of each of them. The play imagines what the two women said to each other in their weekly meeting behind closed doors and where no notes were taken.
Although director Indhu Rubasingham’s production is engrossing and entertaining, this talky and dense play may be difficult to follow for Americans who either do not know or have forgotten the details of Thatcher’s 11 year career as the first woman British prime minster and the longest serving P.M. of the 20th century. Among characters depicted by the male actors whom Americans may have trouble placing are Kenneth Kaunda, Neil Kinnock, Michael Shay, Kenneth Clarke, Arthur Scargil, Peter Carrington and Michael Heseltine. Many of these men were Thatcher’s cabinet ministers who are no longer on the political scene. However, with two actresses playing each of the women in both younger and older incarnation, it is quite remarkable how much they reflect the real life people they play.
The title refers to a British expression which came about due to Thatcher’s assertive and rude behavior to her colleagues and associates and as a tribute to the iconic blue purse she always carried. It even ended up in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary with the meaning of a woman politician treating a person ruthlessly or insensitively in public, although Thatcher never actually attacked any of her ministers with her handbag. Nicknamed “The Iron Lady” by the press, she also carried her speeches as well as documents in her handbag and would pull them out at a moment’s notice to knock down her opponents with whom she disagreed. While Thatcher as dramatized here is never actually rude to the Queen, she is often peremptory or officious as she has been shown in interviews and public speeches.
The play dramatized the weekly meetings that Thatcher had with the Queen at either Buckingham Palace or at other royal residences from May 4, 1979 when she first met with her Majesty to November 28, 1990 when she lost her election for a fourth term and made her farewell appearance at the palace as P.M. Aside from these meetings, the play covers speeches and public appearances that gave rise to famous and controversial statements. Throughout the play Queen Elizabeth is played by Beth Hylton (Liz) as the younger monarch and Anita Carey (Q) as an older version of her. Thatcher is depicted at all times by Susan Lynsky (Mags) as her younger self and Kate Fahy (T) as the older version. As the women were only six months apart, they were exact contemporaries, but it becomes increasingly obvious that Thatcher was much more conservative than her more compassionate monarch.
Told in chronological order, Handbagged covers the major events of Thatcher’s three terms as prime minister but as always seen through the lens of the Queen. Among the more dramatic episodes in the first act are her first appearance at the Heads of Commonwealth conference in Lusaka, Zambia, the visit of President Reagan to London, the IRA bombing that killed Lord Mountbatten, the Queen’s uncle, among others victims, The Falklands War which was not supported by the U.S. government, the Coalmine Strikes of 1984.
The second act covers the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the Queen’s Christmas message rebuking this state of affairs, Thatcher’s narrow escape from being killed in the IRA bombing of the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, the assassination of India Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Thatcher’s unpopular stand on South African Apartheid, the riots against the Poll Tax, and ultimately the insurrection by her own party. Little by little we see the Queen’s divergent views against some of Thatcher’s more extreme stances.
As the script does not indicate stage directions, Rubasingham, who also directed the original UK production for the Kiln Theatre, London, has done a wonderful job of moving the characters around from an all white set with its tea table and silver service surrounded by black walls (from designer Richard Kent) to other places on the stage. Hylton and Carey do a beautiful job making the Queen as diplomatic as possible while still at the same time hinting at her own political and social positions. Lynskey and Fahy make Thatcher a totally inflexible woman whose fully formed views left no room for debate or compromise. You either agreed with her or got out of her way. While the actresses never change their outfits, designer Kent has defined them with the four costumes he has provided.
The two male actors demonstrate tremendous range as well as knowledge of accents playing a range of characters. Cody LeRoy Wilson’s roles include Kenneth Kaunda, President of Zambia, American First Lady Nancy Reagan and Michael Shea, the Queen’s Press Secretary. As the older of the two men, John Lescault impersonates Thatcher’s ultra-Right Wing husband Denis, President Ronald Reagan, publishing magnate Rupert Murdoch, Prince Philip, and Cabinet Ministers Peter Carrington and Michael Heseltine. Whether you recognize these men or not – and they all announce themselves without always giving an introduction, the actors make them completely different from each other, sometimes with props, other times only with accents.
Moira Buffini, whose plays Gabriel and Dying for It have been seen at Atlantic Theatre Company, has written an epical political drama with a great deal of comedy. Whether you will be able to follow the jam-packed history of Margaret Thatcher’s rise and fall as the prime minister of the United Kingdom will determine how much you will get out of Handbagged. Nevertheless, the imagined view of political life behind closed doors, even based on supposition, is fascinating and enlightening.
Handbagged (through June 30, 2019)
Round House Theatre, Maryland
59E59 Theatres, 59 East 59 Street, in Manhattan,
For tickets, call 646-892-7999 or visit http://www.59E59.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission