The structure of England is a peculiar one: The monarchy represents the Commonwealth, while the Prime Minister dictates the politics and policies within The United Kingdom. These two representatives of a single country came to a heated clash in the 1980s during the reign of The Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, brought to brilliant life in Handbagged, originally performed at The Kiln Theatre in The UK.
Handbagged is a fast-paced, witty, chronological epic that charts the arcs of the characters and their bumpy relationship. Writer Moira Buffini begins at the beginning – when Queen Elizabeth and Thatcher are still relatively young, exploring their power, their politics, and one another. They may both represent Britain, but the piece – which plays out on a stage designed as The Union Jack – shows that during their regular private meetings that they have two dramatically different visions. While their meetings were conducted “correctly”, Thatcher wanted to move the country towards modernity and away from its stuffy, staid perception on the global stage. The play details the growing chasm between their roles and the complexities between their functions, using history as the springboard.
Buffini cleverly employs two sets of actors, past and present iterations of these headstrong female leaders, who lament a lack of closeness and understanding between them, revising their memories and issuing periodic asides about their own behaviors and reactions. Susan Lynskey effortlessly projects the steely young Thatcher who presides over a country soon to be boiling with rage, protests, and strikes. Cody Leroy Wilson offers a comedic contrast as the voice of the people – the Downstairs – the voter, the protestor, and later, hilariously, Nancy Reagan. The actors beautifully draw out the play at lightning speed, with drama and wry humor.
Buffini also has her players directly address the audience, as though the play itself might lead viewers to swallow a revised narrative. “They aren’t telling the story – it’s their story. That’s the contract.” As the Queen reveres the Commonwealth, Thatcher practically spits when she laments a Britain in decline – which her reforms and policies hastened, resulting in unemployment, broken unions, and the national coal strike, which divided the country and created violent confrontations. The parallels to Trump here are unavoidable: alone in her cabinet, in her country, surrounded by unelected advisors, running on fumes of fervor and patriotism.
A swaggering Rupert Murdoch, looking to remake The Sun, uses royal scandal for tabloid fodder – from Sarah Ferguson to Charles and Di – while The Sunday Times publishes a shocking tell-all that The Queen is dismayed by the government’s policies and Thatcher herself, while Buckingham Palace denies the story’s veracity. All the while, The Queen uses her seemingly limited governmental power, but broad access to the people, to soldier on.
Buffini takes creative license by imagining their thoughts and private conversations, but succeeds in skilfully, creatively, showing two immensely powerful women, immoveable, principled, and capable of cutting one another right down to the bone.