Jhey all wondered, says actor Marion Bailey, “can we do this piece now?” Handbagged was due to start previews at London’s Kiln Theater last Friday, then news of the Queen’s death broke. This performance was canceled but the actors took the stage on Saturday with some trepidation. How would audiences react to a play about the Queen’s meetings with Margaret Thatcher (and less than a week since the real monarch had met another female Tory Prime Minister)?
“We were kind of prepared for anything,” says Bailey, who plays the older version of two Queen Elizabeths (reviving her role from the original 2013 production). On stage, they observed a minute of silence and director Indhu Rubasingham gave a speech. “But the audience seemed ready immediately,” Bailey says. “They wanted to laugh. They wanted, on some level, to celebrate the Queen.
“People are really on your side and really want to see her and connect with her,” says Abigail Cruttenden, who plays the young queen. There’s a new resonance to his lines, many of which are drawn from real life, “and you’re aware of that for the audience.”
Moira Buffini’s play imagines the conversations between the Queen and Thatcher. Despite superficial similarities – their ages, their hair, their handbags, the two leading women in a male world – here they are poles apart. It’s a sign of the Queen’s political inscrutability that it doesn’t seem too far-fetched that Buffini imagines her as some kind of socialist, or at least that her values are in stark contrast to Thatcher’s. “Although she’s teased slightly, and gently,” Bailey said, “[in the play] the queen is kind of a goodie, compared to Thatcher. She is the one who represents decency and concern for society. If she had been an unsympathetic character, it would have been harder to do.
Both actors have played royalty before – Bailey was the Queen Mother in TV series The Crown, and Cruttenden played Elizabeth I in the play Swive [Elizabeth] – but neither compares to the ubiquity of the late Queen. To prepare, they both watched a lot of documentaries and footage of her. Getting the voice right was key, says Cruttenden. “I was very aware of her [love of] on horseback and on foot,” she says. The monarch’s longtime riding in particular – she reportedly went horseback riding just months ago – “affects the way you hold yourself”. Both actors have a new appreciation for the Queen’s stamina. “My arm hurts from holding the purse,” Cruttenden laughs. “Not to mention the feet,” says Bailey. “And that’s just playing one game a day,” adds Cruttenden.
Bagged, Cruttenden thinks, reveals the queen’s sense of humor. The older queen, says Bailey, “allows herself to be slightly more cheeky in the room. I think she was trying to follow a protocol that she felt she might let go of a bit as she got older. I’m the one who assaults and makes grimaces in the background, as young Liz attempts to have a serious conversation with young Thatcher.
What Cruttenden has noticed watching the Queen over the years, she says, slipping into the present tense, “what sets her apart from another generically posh person is that she only talks to no one, ever. She is not condescending. Very attentive, very personally engaged, [when] it would be easy not to be. The Queen gave her own performance, says Bailey, “which she felt she had to give to society – what she felt was her role and her destiny. It’s a pretty generous way to live your life in a sense, selflessly. It’s not like she could ever wake up one morning and think “well, that’s it”. She just kept going with it.
Is Her Majesty a socialist, wonders Thatcher. “That’s the gag,” Bailey said. “Of course, she was not a socialist, but she certainly believed that society was an entity and that she symbolized that society.” She tried to be unifying; Thatcher was divisive. “For me, she belonged to a post-war generation that had a sense of duty and believed in certain values. She had come out of the war at a time when a national health service was emerging, there was state broadcasting, there was the welfare state. There’s a lot of that in the room. Then Thatcher came along in the 80s and started eliminating all of that. It must have been very painful. She pauses. “I say ‘must have’ – it’s in my imagination.” It seems relevant to play the part now, she adds, “when these values are undermined and left in the trash, it shows.”
The day after the Queen died, they were in rehearsal and the two actors started gushing during a speech. They say the emotion took them by surprise. Cruttenden was thrilled to “push it into rehearsal,” knowing that on stage she would be fine. Bailey took care of it by channeling the queen herself. “I thought to myself, look, she would have been fine.”