A woman who dares to seek power, to operate within the public and political realm is a woman who is always judged not just on her policies, and the ways she uses power to hold sway, but also on her appearance, the face she presents to the world.
The 14-year-old future Queen Elizabeth knows too well the absolute necessity to have a new dress in Swive [Elizabeth] (Sam Wanamaker), Ella Hickson’s short, sharp and very smart exploration of the way women must negotiate their own safety and power in a man’s world. Following the young Elizabeth through uncertain times as her half-brother ascends the throne, through her relationship with her sister Mary and to her long reign, Hickson’s play has real swagger.
Colin Tierney and Abigail Cruttenden.
It offers a potted history, but one that takes a very particular perspective: the negotiations, the sacrifices and the dangers that must be skirted by a woman in power. This is after all a young woman whose own mother, Anne Boleyn, lost her usefulness and then her head when she failed to produce a male heir and her sexual capital waned.
When at the beginning of her reign her advisor, Cecil, tells Elizabeth that she cannot rewrite history to suit herself, she counters “I will wear really big dresses with shiny things.” This is a woman who knows that power is located in appearance, particularly if you are female. A big ruff makes a statement; a big dress can hide a lot of things including the way the heart really feels. Later a laundry maid speaks truth to power pointing out that a crown is simply a hat studded with precious stones. Hickson plays neatly on the power of illusions including the illusions of theatre itself.
The way that the play operates is ingenious and immensely satisfying to watch: a series of echoes in which lessons are learned by the quick-witted Elizabeth and then applied as she tries to save her neck and secure her throne. Hickson isn’t just a snazzy writer who delivers pointed lines (“they tell me you must marry before your face runs out”) but also an experimenter in form and construction.
Nina Cassells and Abigail Cruttenden.
The brilliant cast of four—Michael Gould and Colin Tierney—play multiple roles not just because it keeps the numbers down but because each pairing is a reiteration, reminding how history—and the machinations of men—keep being repeated. It is very cleverly done, shining a light on the way Elizabeth was used by men as a pawn for their own ambitions. And how, as a childless ruler, with no direct heir she felt obliged to act just like those men to protect her own position. She was a mighty sovereign who always felt precarious.
Director Natalie Abrahami’s production has the sparseness, cleanness necessary to bring a stream-lined urgency to the proceedings in an evening that riffs entertainingly on history to remind that even today female leaders are perceived as “weak and feeble”, their behaviours scrutinised for signs of womanly frailness, and that for a woman achieving power and retaining it is always hard because men will always serve their own interests and those of the patriarchy.
Swive [Elizabeth] runs at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse until Sat 15 Jan.