One doesn’t normally kick off a review with applause for the wig stylist and dialect coach, but credit must go where it’s due: Carole Hancock and Dori Beau Seigneur’s hair pieces and Melissa Flaim’s work on the accents in Handbagged are simply superb. Yes, yes, I’ll get around to praising Moira Buffini’s witty, elegant script and the winning sextet of actors, but I must point out that crafting persuasive (yet winking) impersonations of Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher (at different ages, no less) is no easy feat. You have to locate the sweet spot between the satirical puppet series Spitting Image and Netflix’s deluxe, impeccably appointed The Crown. Happily, the illusion before us at 59E59 courtesy of Washington, D.C.’s Round House Theatre is quite complete – even if the play itself grows a mite shaggy.
The verisimilitude of Handbagged stands in stark contrast to another current play that also examines a powerful woman playing high-stakes politics: Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton. There, Hnath erects a cosmic, fourth-wall-breaking frame. Microphone in hand, Laurie Metcalf gives chats to the audience about parallel universes and alternate realities, all to excuse the fact that neither she nor John Lithgow will really resemble their iconic characters. Buffini and her actors likewise destroy the fourth wall (in fact, I’m not sure the fourth wall ever exists in this piece), but they maintain a delicious illusion of the original women, which is part of the fun.
Buffini has written a two-hour choral drama for six actors, most lines direct-address, woven together as a continuous fugue sprinkled with bits of one-on-one dialogue. Four of the actors play monarch and prime minister: The older Thatcher is T (Kate Fahey); Q (Anita Carey) is the elderly Elizabeth II; the more casually named Mags (Susan Lynskey) is the younger Thatcher; and Liz (Beth Hylton) represents the queen in a youthful middle age. The timeline of the play is roughly Thatcher’s reign from 1979 to 1990 – spanning the big events of that period: the fall of the Berlin Wall; Thatcher’s controversial shutting down of coal mines in the north; her warm, anti-Soviet alliance with Ronald Reagan; Perestroika in the U.S.S.R.; the Falklands War; and of course, the despised Tory leader’s sudden fall from power.
A movie such as The Iron Lady depicts these events with a cinematic straight face, but Buffini is free to mix glib metatheatrical jokes with more serious bits to create a giddy tapestry of fact and supposition. T and Q archly disagree about whether we should have an intermission or not. The amusing Cody Leroy Wilson and John Lescault, as Actor 1 and 2, juggle a dozen or so supporting men (and Nancy Reagan) with vaudevillian zest. Even so, the bloody 1984 Brighton hotel bombing, in which the IRA tried to kill Thatcher, is treated with appropriate gravitas. Throughout it all, the focus is more or less on the mysterious relationship between these two powerful women – one who was to the manor born, the other who had to reinvent herself as an impregnable ideological warrior to rise to the top. Supposedly, they didn’t like each other, which is quite understandable. The Queen could play Britain’s superego; Maggie was all id.
The four leading actresses are each quite wonderful. Fahy’s quavery, senior Thatcher has a wounded but still dangerous quality about her, a canny stateswoman with no regrets. Carey’s grandmotherly Q has delightful, understated comic energy, arching an eyebrow at a particularly daft remark by T or Mags. As the younger Liz, Hylton is tart and proper, holding her own against Mags in their fraught weekly meetings. And finally, Susan Lynskey’s Mags has the heaviest lifting in the play, often taking center stage to narrate her journey from history-making “boss” (her nickname) to albatross around the Conservative neck. Lynskey exudes an almost sensual pleasure as Thatcher in her prime, eyes half-closed in steamy fantasies of free markets, deregulated corporations, and her beloved cowboy Ronnie, lips pursed whether she’s spitting venom at Labour or adopting a Churchillian pose in Parliament. Luxuriant, smug, swimming in power, Lynskey’s Mags is the cat who got the cream.
Of course, we know how that dish curdled. And while Handbagged is expertly staged by Indhu Rubasingham and often entertaining, it does start to wear after intermission. The torrents of cross-talk and direct address start to blur into one big comically enhanced data dump. The piece began life in 2010 as a one-act that was later expanded. I’m not entirely sure that Buffini found the structural justification for a two-act structure. You keep wishing the piece would slow down into an extended dialogue, or break its own rules to vary the pace and pattern.
In the end, this is Thatcher’s story more than Elizabeth’s (justified, since lord knows Her Majesty has had plenty of dramatic portraits by now). And while Buffini doesn’t show terribly much sympathy for the late-capitalist devil, she underscores the fact that Thatcher absorbed the nation’s mockery, scorn and outright misogyny in a way that never really touched the Queen, even if just as many Britons disdained their pampered, tax-free symbol of monarchy. Thatcher was on the front lines, pushing a global, aggressive, some would say inhuman, free-market agenda, and she couldn’t hide behind a veneer of motherly empathy, which the Queen enjoys to this day. Thatcher fell. The Queen endures. But we feel the legacy of both women to this day.
David Cote is a theater critic, playwright and opera librettist based in New York City.