Writer: Daniel Winder
Director: Rae Mcken
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
For centuries writers have been obsessed with a meeting between two sixteenth-century Queens that never happened. From Friedrich Schiller to Josie Rourke, the reign of Elizabeth I is defined by her compatriot cousin Mary Queen of Scots, but the pair were never face to face. However, Elizabeth did meet another female ruler – Grainne O’ Malley – also proving herself in a male-dominated world as a pirate Queen.
Daniel Winder’s The Sea Queen receives its world premiere as part of a double bill with Twelfth Night at the open-air Scoop amphitheatre in the shadow of the Mayor of London’s riverside office. The story is fairly simple, 12-year old Grainne begs her father to let her join his trade ship and although “the sea is no place for a girl” he eventually relents. Fast-forward to her 24thyear and Grainne is unanimously chosen to replace her ailing father as leader when she encounters the dastardly Lord Bingham. With her brother’s life at stake, only a fellow Queen can save him.
Winder’s musical is a rollicking marine tale of sword fighting sailors, swaggering villains and jolly sea shanties that celebrates the power of female leaders and not least an Irish female leader who declares her intention in the show’s slightly political closing scene to fight for Irish rights and trade freedoms. Staged by designer Mayou Trikerioti with all the usual frills of a pirate story, there is a simplicity that easily converts the stage from Grainne’s galley to the English court and hangman’s province.
Winder’s story is fairly slight, there’s not quite enough spiralling cartoony madness to keep young children gripped for its 50-minute run time but also not quite enough substance within the plot to appeal to older children and their parents. The story takes a few rapid leaps, moving forward 12-years with little explanation and on another occasion the captured Bingham, defeated in a mid-point duel with Grainne is free and suddenly blockading the pirate fleet – while Winder builds exposition into the text eventually, these events could be signposted or signalled more clearly.
Matthew Bugg’s musical composition is full of lovely Elizabethan stylings, also drawing on sea shanties to create an evocative sound design while the eight songs give key solos to the main characters to explore their motivation and adding both an Arabian-influenced number for Aderfi (Feyesa Wakjira) a captured pirate and a strong choral Latin piece for the eventual entrance of Elizabeth I.
Stephanie MacGaraidh as Grainne is a strong female role-model laughing off the continued insistence that women should be married and at home. George Caporn’s Donal comes into view later in the show as a peace-making and honourable influence on his sister. Melanie Gleeson is particularly enjoyable as Bingham, a smooth-talking, double-crossing villain while Veronica Beatrice Lewis makes a grand entrance as Elizabeth I, capturing the Queen’s famous mercurial nature, love of compliments and quick temper.
The final meeting of the two Queens is heavy on explaining plot details we have already seen which feels like a missed opportunity to explore the unusual thrills and burden of leadership for these two extraordinary women. “We have fought in different seas but our battles have been the same” Elizabeth tells Grainne, The Sea Queen only scratches the surface of those parallels but the meeting of Gloriana and the Pirate Queen is a story worth telling.
Runs Until: 1 September 2019 | Image: Liz Isles