Ooh, I liked Swive; I liked Swive very much indeed. In many ways, you could argue that was always going to pass – an examination of Elizabeth Tudor’s perilous rise from orphan to queen through the lens of patriarchal power structures is like catnip to me. But with great expectations always comes the risk of great let downs but that has been faced down in some style in this fantastic new play created by Ella Hickson and directed with aplomb by Natalie Abrahami.
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is such an atmospheric venue with its candlelight and shadows so you have to respect a play that starts with the protagonist declaring of the set, “you know this isn’t real, don’t you?” Tearing apart the idyllic setting to reveal a sparse production that rips out this historical play from its contrived setting and transforming into something that feels contemporary and fresh..
A great idea and a smart starting point as not only does it release the production of its trappings to revel in its popular cultural themes of male power, patriarchy, gaslighting, and the limits of empowerment, but it wills the audience to get down to the bare bones of what we are here to bear witness to.
And what is that? It’s that no woman, no matter how high she climbs and no matter the privilege of her birth, will always be undermined by men.
The story begins at the very point that King Henry VIII dies. Though we are not with the king. Instead, we are with a young Elizabeth (played beautifully by Nina Cassells). She is alone and confused – how can she mourn a sociopathic father who murdered her mother? And it is that memory of her mother, her recognition of the role that Anne played in her country’s political, religious and cultural life, that makes this young Princess realise she is not safe under her brother’s rule. Nor her sister’s that duly follow.
We slip through Elizabeth’s formative years, witnessing her battle to simply stay alive – a burden no child should have to carry. She is canny and smart – she is astute enough to deduce who she can trust and who she can’t – but she is also just a child and there’s a fantastic scene that echoes throughout the corridors of history when a teenage Elizabeth is accused by another woman of brazenly using her sexuality and demure flirting skills to seduce a married man that really brings this home in the most painful of ways.
As we switch up to the years on the throne, we welcome the glorious Abigail Cruttenden as our Queen, her Elizabeth ever so aware of how fragile her perch was. And a woman as much at loggerheads with the men who claimed to advise her as in cahoots with them.
There is no doubt that Ella Hickson’s words are tremendous. They are full of character, enabling her Elizabeths to flit between brilliance and insecurity with ease. They are full of expression and dry observation (‘My mother seduced a man so successfully that he altered the constitutional history of this country.’) And Natalie’s direction is so subtle and effective… You don’t feel the time hops at all; scenes slide effortlessly together.
But to focus on the narrative only detracts me from relishing again in the observations on show here. I particularly enjoyed the unspoken battle between the feminine and masculine within Elizabeth; how the notion of power as feminine is something she felt to be uncomfortable and shaped herself accordingly, as if women must always adopt traditionally masculine accents for the crown to suitably rest on their head. Fascinating, As are the keenly observed details such as how the Queen sits on her throne to how male courtiers try to “correct” her memories of past events.
I could go on but I wouldn’t want to ruin this electric production for you. A truly nuanced inspection of women and ambition that reveals itself in fresh and innovative ways. Biting and brilliant.
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, to 15 February. Tickets from £20.
All production photos by Johan Persson.
Design by Ben Stones.