United Queendom – Kensington Palace, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writers: Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Anthony Spargo

Director: Christa Harris

As well as staging conventional stage shows such as The Trench, theatre company Les Enfants Terribles have acquired a reputation for fully immersive shows such as Inside Pussy Riot and Alice’s Adventures Underground. Now, in a joint project with Historic Royal Palaces, it rolls time back to when George II and his court walked the corridors and staircases of Kensington Palace.

But as the title United Queendom may imply, the King is far from the focus of this piece, despite an endearingly camp performance by legendary drag performer Lavinia Co-Op. No, here the attention focuses on his wife, Queen Caroline, and his mistress, Henrietta Howard.

Howard has often been portrayed as a scheming woman who inveigled her way into Court, eventually becoming lady-in-waiting to Caroline. Conventional history sets these two women against one another. But in Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Anthony Spargo’s promenade production, an alternative reading is suggested.

Yasmin Keita’s Henrietta, it is posited, was a smart woman who joined Court so that its protection would hide her from her abusive husband. And far from being enemies, Henrietta and Caroline (Miranda Heath) were allies against the patriarchal strictures under which they both lived.

The tale unfolds along two paths, the audience being split after a party hosted by Deven Modha’s Lord Chamberlain. Initially, Susan Kulkarni’s costume designs and Victoria Stride’s wig work, both of which combine Georgian dress with modern neon flourishes, and the heightened performances suggest an air more of pantomime than the pomp of royalty.

But as the audience are escorted further into the palace, it becomes easier to buy in to the portrayal. Lucy Reynolds’s Countess of Hertford – rather scandalously wearing men’s breeches – frequently pops by to deconstruct the rules of court, often breaking out into rap. Reynolds brings with her such a sense of anarchic energy that her absences are keenly felt.

But while the women of court are the ones who drive the narrative forward – just as Caroline, who often acted as Regent while George II spent a lot of time in Germany, was responsible for a lot of advances we ascribe as the start of the “Georgian” era – there is resistance. In this production that is personified by Richard Holt’s Duke of Newcastle, who resents any acknowledgement of Caroline’s achievements. As we are treated to a short visit to one of Caroline’s salons, meetings in which courtiers would discuss the latest in artistic and scientific advances, with guests including Sir Isaac Newton, Newcastle blusters about the pointlessness of women’s contributions, and his outright rejection of scientific theories that contradict his own prejudices. It may not be a particularly subtle replication of some people’s 21st century views, but it is enjoyable nonetheless.

The focal point of the entire piece, though, is a confrontation between Caroline and Henrietta which initially plays out as a conventional costume drama might portray it, before the women reject words written about them by a man who wasn’t even in the room, and rewrite their own story.

And that is the takeaway from this  When people reject the existence of gay people, or strong women, from these stories of the past, they forget that it is because the stories they have heard came through the filter of those who desired to preserve the straight male patriarchy.

Was the real Georgian court closer to Abdel-Magied and Spargo’s version? We may never know. But it’s fun, and not a little empowering, to think that it might.

Continues until 30 March 2020

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A queer take on the royal court

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