Play number three of the Then half of Women, Power and Politics season at the Tricycle Theatre
Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s contribution is The Lioness, a character study of Elizabeth I, picking out two encounters from her life to show how she dealt with the pressures of power and the political role she chose for herself, of wife and mother to the nation. The confrontation with the dour John Knox, founder of the Presbyterians and a shocking misogynist, reminding her that being Queen in a man’s world was rife with long-held antipathy to female leaders and whilst his vituperative writings were not aimed specifically at her (but rather her sister), her sense of sisterhood was sufficiently strong to never forgive him.
And her relationship with the Earl of Essex, a favourite in her later life despite being the step-son of Dudley who possibly came closest to marrying her. In this continued liaison, there’s more of a sense of her need for companionship with Oliver Chris’ Essex after a hard life of power, his handsome arrogance proving irresistible and thereby making her devastation at his ultimate betrayal despite their familiarity (‘he called me Bess…’) all the more heartbreaking.
In compressing so much time, her whole reign in fact and a very select number of events, although there’s still time for a rousing rendition of the Tilbury call-to-arms speech, “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king…”, I think Lenkiewicz may have over-reached slightly. There just isn’t the time to go into the huge amount of issues that brushed upon here, her uneasy relationship with the legacy of her father, dealing with how her mother died, her angst at what she did to Mary Queen of Scots which end up being dealt with in a perfunctory couple of sentences: the scope of the play is just too big for me to be truly effective.
Where it is more successful is in demonstrating the struggles of balancing the personal and the private, at hinting at the woman behind the monarch, the person who can’t help but be stung by her favourite’s reaction to finally seeing her without wig and make-up, the stoic quality of a leader who knows she can show no weakness for fear of being deposed, no matter how ill she is getting. And this is where Niamh Cusack excels, in showing us the two faces of this Queen, the public mask that covers the private emotions and breathing life into Lenkiewicz’s language which is suffused with physical imagery.