Re-visiting Shakespeare is a perennial theatrical exercise, and Richard the Third’s malevolent reign in the play bearing his name supports many such experiments. Particularly as the play features such grandly betrayed and suffering women. Dipping into this territory is playwright Sarah Haley’s Anjou. In a world both Shakespearean and somewhere in the geography of modernity, we begin with the funeral of Anne’s husband. Soon, we know, she will succumb mysteriously to the wooing of a vain and culpable Richard, culpable for no less crime than having murdered Anne’s spouse. Throughout it all, Margaret states her case, grieving for both her husband and son, abandoned utterly and at Richard’s mercy.
There is much to admire in this production. Hilary Peck delivers a very solid performance. Relishing in the role of Richard, she shows a love of language that works for her. Peck knows how to exploit those turns of phrase that reveal character. Aisha El Shennawy has a more formidable task. What are we to feel for Margaret as she laments, but never actually seems to fight back? Her only strategy it seems is to persuade Montana Adams’ Anne to stage a modest rebellion by refusing Richard’s marriage bed. But Anne is tied to her fate, a fact that Adams conveys well but could communicate more forcefully by playing directly to the audience. Still, for all her professed despair, Anne is a cipher. What are we to make of this woman? Even the original scene by Shakespeare leaves one baffled by her swift betrothal to a man she loathes over the coffin of her husband. Was she seeking sanctuary? Was protection her only resort? And let’s not forget, true to his word, Richard will dispose of her. A fact Adams’ Anne also confirms. This is a woman who knows she is doomed. Her challenge is how to make herself memorable to our witness.
In playing Shakespeare’s Anne, some actresses have even contemplated that Anne might have been attracted to the creature she hated with such wordy fervor. Difficult to countenance, but dramatically interesting. Which is all to say that it’s a formidable task to inhabit these characters’ fictional lives and liberate or even explain them at the same time.
It didn’t bother me that Margaret, described as ancient in Shakespeare’s play, is portrayed by a much younger El Shennawy in Anjou. With only her face and hands clearly visible, El Shennawy’s Margaret looks more like a ghost than a creature of flesh and blood. Is she haunting Richard or us?
Stand out scenes include the sequence where Margaret as prophet seeks to read her own fate in her closely held cards. Cards Richard tossed heedlessly into the air letting them fly across the stage. Forced to retrieve her scattered fate Margaret lays out the deck and interprets the signs. Unsatisfied and afraid, she desperately re-shuffles the deck and lays out the cards again. This pleading with the instruments of fate is one of El Shennawy’s most poignant moments. But it hints at her ownership of a power and emotional drive the play could explore further. Richard dismisses her gift of seeing into the future, is he right to do so? Ancient crones who cursed the assembly, as Margaret does in Shakespeare’s play, may well have been relying on their observations over a lifetime that evildoers eventually brought evil on themselves. But, of course, when the inevitable happens, everyone will remember the old woman who flung the curse. Anne may be forced to keep Richard awake at night for conjugal reasons, but Margaret has the power to enter his dreams.
What is wonderful about this production is the entrance of a playwright and an ensemble of theatre practitioners bound and determined to grapple with Shakespeare, history, and the lives of women as portrayed by the bard. To ask the questions, to take on the web of complexities surrounding–some would say embalming–these characters and give them a voice is a formidable theatrical undertaking from which playwright Sarah Haley and her cast do not shrink. Musician Amira Haley adds an element of elegance to the proceedings with smooth execution on keyboard and violin. And her musical contribution also highlights another element of the play’s experimentation. Much of the music is contemporary, or at least post Tutor, picking up on the play’s themes and in one case providing Richard and Anne with a dance that allows the actors to portray both repulsion and desire as well as Richard’s final casting off of Anne. The play also makes good use of a simple eye-catching floor pattern. Of course, it’s also a chessboard. In both these elements Anjou’s director, Haley proves you can be minimal without sacrificing intriguing sound and a few striking visuals.
The Lady Chamberlain is on the move, offering a glimpse into the workings of a company forging a path into a new future, from the past.
Anjou The Lady Chamberlain
Written and Directed by Sarah Haley
Aisha El Shennawy–Margaret
This article originally appeared in Capital Critics’ Circle on June 15, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.