Originally conceived in 2010 for Tricycle Theatre‘s Women, Power and Politics Festival, Handbagged was adapted to a full length play by writer Moira Buffini and director Indhu Rubasingham in 2013. It recounts the events of Margaret Thatcher’s eleven year Prime Ministerial run via the weekly meetings she had with HRH Queen Elizabeth II. The two younger women re-enact the hypothetical conversations, which were never actually recorded, whilst being constantly watched and interrupted by older versions of themselves. Every other person of import, including Dennis Thatcher, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and Neil Kinnock, is played by one of two male actors, who are often used to provide brief historical settings for some of the conversations, for the benefit of ‘the young people’. They also frequently acknowledge the theatrical setting and fall in and out of their roles, sometimes just playing the actors themselves, at which point they are instructed or chided by the four ladies, who, although they never break character, also know they are in a play. Buffini uses the interaction between the older and younger women to cleverly avoid any complete fabrications; whenever one version of the Queen or the PM says or thinks something unfounded or questionable, the other version will deny they ever said or thought it, thus maintaining the ambiguity that has always surrounded this relationship.
The characterisations of all four actresses are uncanny, and the writing and performances perfectly balance what we know and saw of both women in public with believable speculations of what they were like behind closed doors. My favourite, I must say, is the older Elizabeth, played by Susie Blake, who probably gets the most laughs and is exactly what I have always hoped the Queen is like in private. I was also surprisingly impressed by Asif Khan’s Nancy Reagan; of course, men in drag always get a big laugh in this country, but Khan doesn’t pantomime this part, affording Nancy as much dignity and respect as the other women. The only aspect of the performances that doesn’t quite hold up are the various accents (most notably the Scottish and Northern Irish ones) of the two male parts, which waver significantly, especially during long speeches. However, since these men are known by everyone on and off stage to be actors playing many roles, the unconvincing accents can be written off with a nod and a wink to the audience.
The whole play is very comical, and would appeal to pretty much anyone with a decent knowledge of recent British history, with constant one-liners, witticisms, farcical elements and, of course, plenty of political satire. It does not shy away from the harder hitting stuff, however, paying close attention to the big issues of the time, such as the Falklands War, the miner’s strikes and the IRA bombings, and even acknowledging Mrs Thatcher’s later dementia. In fact, as the play goes on, the focus moves from the relationship between the two women to Thatcher herself, with both Elizabeths moving into the background. The Queen’s views, extrapolated from her unconstrained Christmas speeches, are shown to be mid-left at the very least and are shown in a favourable light, whilst both actors (when playing the actors themselves, rather than anyone else) are obviously anti-Thatcher. This leaves both versions of Maggie fiercely defending her anti-socialist position, as she often did, and it is obvious that we’re meant to feel she is in the wrong. Although this may be the opinion of many British citizens (including myself), I might have preferred it if the play had remained neutral; that way it could avoid alienating some audience members and may even have been able to tell the story better.
Women’s rights issues, despite being a political talking point both then and now, are not discussed at any point during the play. Granted, there were several larger controversies during Thatcher’s era which also deserve discussion, and Thatcher herself seemed to actively avoid such issues in public, meaning bringing them up in private discussions with the Queen could be out of character. However, I suspect that Buffini simply prefers not to draw attention to gender. The fact that the first female PM is in power alongside a female monarch is discussed in the first few minutes and never really brought up again. And whilst the play acknowledges both women’s roles as mothers, wives and daughters, it pays significantly more attention to their importance as leaders and individuals. Even more importantly, Buffini and Rubasigham subtly, but to great effect, make it clear that the attitudes and actions of these women are a product, not of their gender, but of their own individual experiences and personalities. And that, I would argue, is the most feminist thing they could have done.