This month I had the pleasure of attending one of the final performances of Uniting Productions’ Elizabeth and Grace, a historical drama written by Annie Bilton and directed by Mary Middleton. Uniting Productions specializes in showcasing the work of local playwrights, and Annie is one of our most celebrated and talented. She describes herself as “an all-round theatre obsessive with more than 3 decades’ experience” and has award winning credits in writing, acting and directing both here and abroad. I’ve been a fan of her work for some time. She first caught my attention in 2008 when I was impressed by her performance as Queen Gertrude in the MAC’s production of Ophelia Thinks Harder. More recently, I enjoyed her enthralling adaptation of Antigone which was staged by Uniting Productions last year. Annie has a flair for classical theatre, so I was especially excited when I learned she had penned a Tudor themed drama.
The English town of Kingston upon Thames, where I attended high school and university, is steeped in royal history. Tudor architecture still dominates the high street, and the town is connected by river to the royal Richmond and Bushy Parks and neighbouring town, Hampton Court. I lived just a 15-minute drive from the famed Hampton Court Palace, which housed both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I from time to time during their reigns. It is, perhaps, inevitable then that I should be particularly intrigued by this period in British history. In my youth I was absorbed by BBC dramas on the lives of the Tudor monarchs and, later, I learned to appreciate the plays of Elizabethan dramatist, William Shakespeare. I was delighted when I learned that Uniting Productions was planning to stage Elizabeth and Grace, and have looked forward to seeing this play since I first heard about it.
The action revolves around a historical event: the capture by the English of the son of Irish chieftain, Grace O’Malley, and his subsequent imprisonment in the Tower of London. In 1593 Grace travelled to England to petition Queen Elizabeth I for his release. Annie’s play imagines what might have taken place in the meeting between these two extraordinary women. Her script offers insight into the political intrigue of the period as courtiers seek to orchestrate the situation to advance their own agendas. A cast of varied characters are each distinct and interesting in their own right, but the action eventually centres around the personal interplay between two very different women. Both are leaders of their people, but while Elizabeth is confined to the machinations of the English court, Grace is a sea captain and a pirate. Armed with the gift of the gab and narrative skills worthy of her cultural heritage, Grace entertains and charms the powerful but friendless English queen with tales of her youthful adventures and seafaring exploits.
The script recalls Elizabethan drama both in its eloquence and in its occasional flashes of bawdy humour. Annie exploits the contrast between Grace’s romantic flamboyance and Elizabeth’s dry wit to humourous effect, while exposing the vulnerabilities of each: a mother’s anxiety, a queen’s loneliness, and the weight of responsibility they each bear. It is ultimately a story of bravery and humanity, both entertaining and moving, gripping and enthralling from start to finish. The history of the period is well represented: the pomp of the court is contrasted against the primitive conditions of the time. Annie has and eye for details that lend historical authenticity and texture, embroidering her script with snatches of Gaelic and Latin and snatches of Irish music and song.
The script was excellently supported in every element of UP’s production. Stunning costumes portrayed the glamour of the period. The staging brought the action right into the audience, creating an intimate and immediate theatrical experience. Lighting and sound were used to good atmospheric effect and additional touches helped maintain the historical illusion, such as the use of period music between scenes; even the program was in the form of a scroll with Elizabethan-style calligraphy.
The cast was very well chosen. Annie herself played Elizabeth opposite Pauline Wright as Grace and their performances complemented one another perfectly, with Annie delivering Elizabeth’s dry wit in contrast to Pauline’s portrayal of Grace’s fierce yet poetic soul. Both handled the emotional shifts with subtlety and sensitivity, giving engaging and moving performances. They received excellent support from the rest of the cast with stand-out performances from Paul Russell as Walsingham and Stephen Pearson as Black Tom, and Douglas Kent was delightful as the flamboyantly pompous, oily and sadistic Sir Richard Bingham. Extra credit is deserved for well-handled accents: a rare achievement! My congratulations to everyone for a high-quality drama, well executed. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment.
Uniting Productions continue to support local writers with their regular staged play readings, which take place on the fourth Friday of each month at the Uniting Church Hall in Donnison Street, Gosford. The next reading will be on Friday 28th October at 7.30pm. Admission is free and the audience is invited to give feedback after the performance. For more information, visit http://www.unitingproductions.org.au/