Through March 3
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway in Bethesda
Early in “Handbagged,” British playwright Moira Buffini’s timely take on the prickly relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher, we’re given a glimpse of the Prime Minister’s unyielding will. When a hospitable Queen Elizabeth offers the politician a seat, she instantly and adamantly refuses. A sternly said, “No,” it turns out, is an utterance with which Thatcher is very comfortable.
Now making its American premiere at Round House Theatre, the two-act play is structured around weekly meetings between sovereign and her first female Prime Minister spanning Thatcher’s 11 years in office (1979-1990). Because the contents of these historical tête-à-têtes are mostly unknown, Buffini imagines what was said based on dubious leaks, reported dispositions and track records.
When the powerful pair are first alone on royal turf, the Queen (wearing sensible low heels) assures Thatcher (uniformed in power suit, high heels and even higher hair), “Whatever we say, must stay within these three walls,” as she looks through the fourth wall into the audience. The characters periodically address the audience directly, filling us in on how they really feel.
Throughout “Handbagged” there are always two Queens and two Thatchers on Richard Kent’s stark white set. Beth Hylton and Jennifer Mendenhall play the middle aged and older Queen, respectively, while Susan Lynskey is the Prime Minister in office and Kate Fahy assays the older Thatcher. The more mature versions of the women amusingly perform damage control, quashing indiscreet thoughts or actions their younger selves might reveal. While it may sound a tad confusing, Indhu Rubasingham’s adroit staging ensures that it never gets awkward.
Contemporaries in age, both women are married, working mums who adored their fathers. But that’s where similarities end. The Queen was born into the job whereas Thatcher’s rise from modest shopkeeper’s daughter to Oxford graduate to powerful politician was based on merit and propelled by sheer grit.
Over weekly tea, the pair find they have little in common other than a love for Britain. Thatcher has no time for jokes, gossip, horses, dogs or chilly picnics in Scotland, all things the Queen adores. She predictably balks on corporate regulation, health benefits, workers’ rights, sanctions against apartheid in South Africa and so on. It’s easy to see how she was nicknamed the Iron Lady. To the Queen’s dismay, Thatcher simply doesn’t bend. And while this setup might prove a one-joke show, layered performances, smart writing and direction prevent that from happening.
When not frowning disapprovingly, Mendenhall’s older Queen, or simply Q, is twinkly as she lands the well-timed barb. She’s also quite chummy with her hard-working younger self, Hylton’s Liz. Lynskey’s Mags is scarily determined though sometimes sentimental. And Fahy’s older Thatcher, or T, who most resembles her character, makes for a severe yet haunting presence.
As Actor 1 and Actor 2, Cody LeRoy Wilson and John Lescault ably play 17 parts ranging from Thatcher’s florid, cheerleader husband Dennis (Lescault) to union leaders to the Prime Minister’s political idol and crush Ronald Reagan and his society-smitten wife Nancy (Wilson with bare, hairy legs poking out from the skirt of Nancy’s signature red Adolfo suit).
A couple years ago when Round House first discussed mounting “Handbagged,” they assumed that by now the U.S. would have elected its first woman president. But Buffini’s play about rabidly opposed ideologies in ‘80s British politics resonates even more given our current political scenario. Snippets of dialogue including “collude” and “widening wealth gap” drew chuckles and groans of recognition from the audience on opening night.