Birth Pangs, Royal and Otherwise

Childbirth issues provide an unexpected link to a second, less satisfying London theater opening this week. That would be the Royal Shakespeare Company production of “Queen Anne,” which premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon (the RSC’s home base) late in 2015 and reopened — partly recast — on Monday at the Theater Royal Haymarket, for a West End run through Sept. 30.

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Justine Mitchell in “Bodies” at the Jerwood Theater Upstairs.

Credit
Bronwen Sharp

Telling of the last Stuart queen, who acceded to the throne in 1702 only to die twelve years later at the age of 49, Anne is remembered (if at all) for having no surviving children, despite 17 pregnancies. Much the closest relationship in her sorrowful life is thought to have been with her friend and confidante Sarah Churchill, who became the Duchess of Marlborough and the outspoken power behind the throne.

It’s a shame, then, that a tantalizingly ripe slice of distaff history — the full extent of Anne and Sarah’s “friendship” has long been subject to speculation — should go so underdeveloped in Helen Edmundson’s windy but not especially illuminating play.

The attempt here is an equivalent of sorts to “Mary Stuart,” the canonical history play from Friedrich Schiller about the relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots and a classic text that was stirringly revived by the Almeida Theater at the end of last year and that will move to the West End in January. But neither Ms. Edmundson nor her director, Natalie Abrahami, has unleashed much energy from proceedings that as often as not find characters stepping downstage to linger ponderously in the spotlight. (Sample line: “Go forth my friend, my friend go forth.”)

While the dramatic core lies in the shifting relationship between Emma Cunniffe’s swollen, ailing Anne and Romola Garai’s steely and glamorous Sarah, the production comes padded with superfluous (and unfunny) satirical interludes, most of them sung. Those, in turn, serve only to recall another tiresome period piece, Terry Johnson’s “The Libertine,” to play the Haymarket within the past year.

Heritage theater tends to be easy on the eye, but Hannah Clark’s curvilinear brown set soon palls, throwing attention even more squarely on Ms. Garai’s elegantly coifed Sarah — her curls are a thing of wonder — as the most arresting figure on stage….

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