Review: Handbagged, Tricycle Theatre
I wasn’t going to write about Handbagged. My pen dried up at the start of the show, meaning I’ve got no notes on Moira Buffini’s play, and I went from the theatre to a particularly boisterous wedding, meaning I’ve got very few memories of it either. Professional’s a meaningless term anyway, right?
However, I was flicking through this month’s copy of Theatre Record – which, for the unsubscribers amongst you, rounds up all of the mainstream reviews in one place, a bit like One Man and His Dog with theatre critics instead of sheep. Anyway, I was flicking through Theatre Record and not one of those reviews seemed to mention what Handbagged’s really about.
That’s not entirely fair. They all cover – eloquently and elegantly – the focus on the frosty relationship between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher over the course of the latter’s premiership – as presided over by both of their older selves. They deal with the actors’ portrayals of those iconic woman and – quite rightly – they all flag up that this was the second stage showdown between Maggie and Queenie this year, indeed, the second one speculating about their weekly meetings. Plus they cover Buffini’s meta-theatrics, whereby the two male supporting actors jostle for characters, hop between bit-parts and discuss their role as actors in the play.
That’s enough to give a decent, workable account of the play. You could read these reviews and know what you were going to see. Given word counts you can’t ask for more than that and given the newspaper context, it’s unsurprising that they focus on its handling of people and events that have graced the same pages. However, it does a disservice to what is also a rather fascinating play of abstract ideas.
The key to Handbagged is the tense of its title. Buffini hasn’t written ‘Handbags’ or ‘Handbagging.’ This is a play concerned with the past and, specifically, the way the past crystallises into history, the way it cools and condenses and codifies. It is a play about the mechanisms by which a historical narrative is formed and the way messy present-tense events get bagged up and sold on. It is a play troubled by two old phrases: ‘History belongs to the victors’ and ‘Whosoever controls the past, controls the future.’
At one level, that’s done as simply as having the older of the two women objecting to the portrayal of their younger selves. “I didn’t say that,” they might point out, or, ‘It didn’t happen that way.’ Can we trust them? In fact, can we trust the playwright?
But there’s a bigger question about who gets to speak and, moreover, who gets heard. While the Queen is constitutionally obliged not to express political opinions, her PM is expected to do so. Even at the uppermost levels of the establishment, it’s not an even keel. To express herself, the Queen needs surreptitious subtext in her annual speech and ‘rogue’ advisors like her press secretary Michael Shea, whose leaks to the Sunday Times may or may not coincide to truth…
But what about the little people and the losers? That’s when the supporting actors come in, frequently raising objections to what’s being left out, from the Brixton race riots to Neil Kinnock’s ardent warning speech during his ’84 election campaign. ‘It’s not our gig,’ one chides the other. To be heard, they have to hijack the play. One forces Arthur Scargill into the mix. Another plays a poll tax protestor refusing to buck down when the Thatchers demand. Even Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech comes to seem an extraordinary act needed simply to be heard above the Iron Lady’s iron grip.
It’s vital to the piece, for example, that one of the supporting actors is a child of Thatcher, unable to remember a Britain before her, whose opinion of her premiership is based entirely on history lessons, hearsay and handmedowns. Buffini’s really asking where truth exists, because in the end, down the line, the approximations and appropriations of history get taken for truth. If you don’t speak up and speak out, orthodoxies go unchallenged and big ideas go unsaid. If only I’d taken notes (or not got pissed afterwards).