By Donna Herman
Moira Buffini’s Handbagged is a much-needed meta-comedy currently enjoying its NY premiere in the 59E59 Theaters 2019 Brits off Broadway Festival. Handbagged explores the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-living and longest-reigning British monarch; and “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher, the longest reigning British prime minister of the 20th Century and the first woman British prime minister. Much needed because it serves to remind us that political gorgons aren’t all American made.
The conceit of Handbagged is that each woman is portrayed by two versions of herself. The younger version engaged in their professional relationship, and the older, more reflective versions who no longer have active political roles to play with each other. They occupy the same space and time and speak to one another, contradict their younger and older selves, and provide insight into what they were really thinking about each other, while nominally telling the story of their time together as Queen and PM.
What makes it cheeky and fun is that there is not even the pretense of a fourth wall. At the beginning of the play, the older characters Q (Anita Carey) and T (Kate Fahy) discuss how to proceed:
Q: What can one say here? How far can one go? T: Oh, don’t hold back. It’s all beyond our control Q: Indeed T: All artifice and sham Q: I’ve never been fond of the theatre T: No Q: We saw War Horse recently. We liked the horses T: One would like to speak frankly Q: One doesn’t want to blab T: Oh no, there’s nothing worse than a blabber. We have never blabbed Q: Whatever we say must stay between these three walls
It has always been posited in the press that the relationship between the two powerful women was not overly fond. Behind the witty dialog, Buffini manages to suggest an interesting dynamic that is impossible to prove, but impossible to ignore. Two women of extremely different backgrounds and temperaments who actually respected each other enormously and longed for a comfortable relationship but could never connect on a level that was meaningful to either one of them. Which left them both frustrated and impatient with each other.
Aside from the glimpse into the personal dynamic between these two memorable women leaders, Handbagged also offers us Americans a little refresher course in some of the less memorable incidents of that period. Don’t be concerned that you’re going to be subjected to a dry history lesson. Buffini manages to make it all interesting and fun with the help of two characters who reinforce the meta-comedy theme. Actor 1 (Cody Leroy Wilson) plays A Palace Footman, Kenneth Kaunda, Nancy Reagan, Enoch Powell, Neil Kinnock, Michael Shea, Kenneth Clarke, and A Protestor. Actor 2 (John Lescault) plays Denis Thatcher, Peter Carrington, Gerry Adams, Ronald Reagan, Arthur Scargill, Geoffrey Howe, Rupert Murdoch, Prince Philip and Michael Heseltine. And sometimes they fight over who gets to play what character.
The casting is brilliant. Each pair of women playing the older and younger Queen (Anita Carey and Beth Hylton respectively) and the older and younger Thatcher (Kate Fahy and Susan Lynskey) not only look and sound like each other, but like the historical figures themselves. The direction by Indhu Rubasingham (who commissioned the work as Artistic Director of The Kiln Theatre), is crisp and clear. She keeps the action focused and flowing elegantly on the small white stage. I walked out of Handbagged charmed and informed, feeling a deeper connection to both women and wanting to know more about them. And isn’t that what theater is supposed to do?
Handbagged by Moira Buffini, Directed by Indhu Rubasingham
WITH: Kate Fahy (T); Anita Carey (Q); Susan Lynskey (Mags); Beth Hylton (Liz); Cody Leroy Wilson (Actor 1); John Lescault (Actor 2)
Associate Director, Jennifer Bakst; Scenic and Costume Designer, Richard Kent; Lighting Designer Jesse Belsky; Sound Designer, Carolyn Downing; Production Stage Manager, Che Wernsman; Dramaturg, Gabrielle Hoyt; Vocal & Dialect Coach, Melissa Flaim. A Round House Theatre Production at 59E59 Theaters. Through June 30th only. For tickets call 646-892-7999; visit the Box Office at 59 E. 59th Street from noon to 6pm daily; or online at www.britsoffbroadway.com