Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were far from fast friends, though they were both bound by law and tradition to work together. Things got so bad that the Queen broke with her duty to support the elected government in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Nevertheless, Thatcher, who was both praised and reviled during and after her stint as Prime Minister, clearly had a substantial effect on British life and politics, so much so that the Queen attended her funeral, her first time at a Prime Minister’s funeral since that of Winston Churchill.
Playwright Moira Buffini has written Handbagged about this relationship, and Moxie Theatre is producing its West Coast premiere. The company has given this premiere a prestige production, and that strategy has paid off.
Ms. Buffini portrays her antagonists/collaborators as young women interacting in the moment and older women recalling these events. Only, the two younger women (Lisel Gorell-Getz as Mags, and Debra Wanger as Liz) interact across time with their older counterparts (Sandy Campbell as Queen Elizabeth II, and Linda Libby as Margaret Thatcher), as well as with each other. Two additional actors, Max Macke and Durwood Murray, play the other characters, sometimes performing quick changes to do so.
The play portrays the major events in Thatcher’s eleven years in office: the Falklands War, the coal miners’ strike, the “troubles” in Northern Ireland, the move away from Colonial rule, particularly in Africa, deregulation, privatization, and end of the Cold War. A few of her relationships are explored, particularly with her husband, Denis, with her Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, and with US President Ronald Reagan (all played by Mr. Macke). While Ms. Buffini presents sufficient information to introduce audiences to these topics, some advance knowledge of them will prove helpful.
For the Queen’s part, audiences learn that she adores performing her duties as monarch, that she is particularly protective of the British Commonwealth, which was designed to replace Colonial rule, that she is concerned about her family and in particular about how media portray them, and that she loves tramping the moors of Balmoral Castle, in Scotland, accompanied by her corgis. Each of these passions can and does run up against Thatcher’s avowed policies and the values that underlie them. Some of the characters that Mr. Murray plays serve to advance the Queen’s arguments regarding these conflicts.
In this West Coast premiere production, there are several lines that explicitly tie Thatcher’s attitudes and beliefs to present-day politics in the US. As well, there are lines about how Americans interpret British politics. Many of these are funny and serve to connect Thatcherism to the present. I presume that Ms. Buffini either had a hand in crafting them or approved their use.
Under Kim Strassburger’s sensitive and detailed direction, the interaction among the four principal characters across generations makes complete sense, in providing a rounded view of both the Queen and Mrs. Thatcher. Each woman contributes her part to this sense-making, and occasionally each will provide asides to the audience, either to explain further or to contradict what another character says. More of this breaking of the Fourth Wall is done by Mr. Murray and Mr. Make, who seem to delight in having the opportunity to do so.
The superb quality of the acting by all involved diminishes the importance of production values, but Julie Lorenz’ simple unit set, lit by Cynthia Bloodgood, along with Danita Lee’s costumes and Mason Pilevsky’s sound design, all do their parts to produce an entertaining and highly watchable performance.
It is rare to see this quality a cast of local actors, and they’ll be on stage only through November 17. I’d put Handbagged on your “must see” list.