I, Elizabeth review

by I, Elspeth

The play is a one woman show where the audience become privy to Elizabeth’s more private thoughts on the pressures of her to marry and to execute her Scottish cousin who had just landed in her realm, seeking solace, and to name or produce her heir, in a time of acute religious upheaval. It is all actual quotes, arranged to tell a story.

Writer/performer Rebecca Vaughan knows her stuff to an impressive level, and is just as articulate out of role as when playing the great queen. If your local theatre has a question time opportunity, I recommend staying after this 70 minute play and be amazed at her energy to discuss her subject with such enthusiasm and knowledge.

The original inspiration was the collected works of Elizabeth I, which led Rebecca to a vast amount of primary source research. She chose out of that 70 year life and two score year reign one year (1568) where lots of dramatic possibilities were happening. Like the first Cate Blanchett film, Rebecca found that the pre Gloriana era, the not yet supreme, assured, and avowed Virgin Queen was more interesting to write about than the later reign that perhaps is still firmer in popular memory.

It might seem a feat to keep us interested for over an hour, without a set change, any music, obvious scene breaks, or any props save a chair. Those who have had the pleasure of seeing Austen’s Women know that Rebecca Vaughan is capable of commanding our attention in that scenario, but I, Elizabeth is even a greater challenge: playing one character in one time, continuously talking, and hardly moving. The only feature to mark it out is the zinging light, a deliberately vague device to suggest another presence or tension, whether it be time, God, her own mind; but it gives a sense of urgency and unpredictability to the play.

It takes a while to adjust and immerse oneself in the Tudor language, though methinks it was more convoluted at the start. It becomes more modern, and sometimes more familiar. As someone who has also studied Elizabeth academically (though Rebecca’s learning is superior) and especially looked at her presentation in modern fiction, I have got used to hearing certain alleged sayings, often modernised. There are some which may be apocryphal which enter the cannon. Here, Rebecca has only used Elizabeth’s own words, and the only changes are to insert the name of a person or to change the tense. It is startling to learn what Elizabeth did actually say, and how popular sayings have been altered and re-entered popular collective history in a modernised form. As one audience member commented, this is easier to understand than Shakespeare is to the uninitiated.

I, Elizabeth by Dyad Productions premiered at the Edinburgh festival in 2010 and is continuing its nationwide tour in 2011.

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Filed under history, theatre

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