Henry VI, Richard III, and now the winter season's only premiere, Ella Hickson's Swive [Elizabeth]. It's revealed in a flourish that makes a very early bid for coup de théâtre of the year, as Hickson and director Natalie Abrahami remind us that for all its atmosphere and quaintness this theatre is actually barely six years old, and a biographical play about Elizabeth I (Abigail Cruttenden) might turn out to be surprisingly devoid of courtly niceties. In fact it's an 85-minute race through Elizabeth's life from toddler to menopause, and how her treatment by men throughout her life might have led her to dig her heels in against all the pressure to marry and produce an heir, and instead make the rule of England's only unmarried Queen one of the most iconic eras in history.
The formative event that's, unsurprisingly, referred to regularly is the execution of her mother Anne Boleyn when she was three years old, which she remembers mainly for being left alone with a servant who fell asleep, leaving the candles to go out and the child in the dark as her mother died.
Nina Cassells plays the young Elizabeth who, when her father died having racked up four more wives, was looked after by the last of them, Catherine Parr; as Elizabeth reaches her teens Catherine's new husband Thomas Seymour (Colin Tierney) seems to be taking more of an interest in her, and the previously maternal Catherine turns against her stepdaughter, accusing her of flirting, It's an early lesson for Elizabeth in how her sexuality will be both the main weapon in her arsenal, and something she'll be unforgivingly judged for using. Her teens end up being tumultous years as first her brother then her sister take the throne and her place in the succession sees her viewed as a threat; Hickson leaves exactly what happened between her and Seymour vague, meaning that when Elizabeth throws him under the bus to save herself we never know if it's just brutal pragmatism or has an element of revenge in it.
Regular readers will both know I'm not a great one for giving critique on costumes but they're one of the more noticeable elements here, as Ben Stones' design puts a familiar image of the Virgin Queen on Elizabeth's dresses, a more colourful, detailed and bejewelled portrait emerging as the years go on and the famous façade is created. Swive is in many ways the story of how and why it was created, with Elizabeth's aversion to producing an heir making sense on a personal level as it killed the two women (both played by Cruttenden) she was closest to: Catherine Parr died in childbirth, while as Queen Mary's "pregnancy" enters its eleventh month even she has to quietly admit it's actually a tumour. On a political level, Elizabeth is disgusted by Mary's attempts to cede power to her husband, and when Cruttenden resumes the role as she takes the throne herself, holding on to not only the throne itself but all the same powers it would automatically bring to a man becomes her focus.
If I ended up vaguely disappointed in Swive it's because the blurb and the explosive opening suggested the play would experiment a bit more with form than it ends up doing: In the end it's the breakneck speed with which the history is told which is the innovation, and the play effectively suggests that Elizabeth finds herself careering through life at that speed. The two central male figures in her life are Robert Dudley (Tierney,) presented as a genuine romantic interest, and the father figure of William Cecil (Michael Gould,) and with the Queen constantly in the middle of a power struggle between them she never gets the chance to relax and trust either of them. The relentlessness is the point, as Elizabeth's single status, lack of an heir and the simple fact that she's a woman are never not being thrown into her face, and the offhand introduction of Cassells as a washerwoman carrying bloodstained laundry is revealed to be a sign of how all-pervasive an obsession it became for England and Europe at large. It's an entertaining race through the flipside of a famous history, that positions the painted face of the Virgin Queen as the ultimate act of defiance.
Swive [Elizabeth] by Ella Hickson is booking in repertory until the 15th of February at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes straight through.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.