by Timothy Findley
This brilliant, award-winning play imagines Queen Elizabeth spending the eve of her lover's execution in the company of William Shakespeare and his players. Seeking distraction from her grief, she watches Much Ado About Nothing and afterward, banters with Ned, the actor who played Beatrice, about his playing a woman, and her playing a man. Meanwhile, Shakespeare is writing a new play called Antony and Cleopatra – about a Queen's tragic affair with her lover – which Elizabeth finds suspiciously familiar. Elizabeth Rex will be performed in repertory with both of these Shakespearean plays, making a trilogy of uniquely connected productions that cannot be missed.
Deborah Staples - Elizabeth
Paula Suozzi - Director
It is the evening before the execution of Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, in a seemingly quiet barn near Queen Elizabeth's country residence. Once a favorite of and (in Findley's play, at least) lover to the Queen, Essex has been convicted of treason against the Queen and England. The Lord Chamberlain's Men are completing a performance of Much Ado About Nothing that had been requested by Queen Elizabeth herself as a distraction from the reality of Essex's execution. A curfew has been imposed on the city, out of fear that riots might develop over the impending execution. As the performance draws to a close, we meet Percy Gower, the aged comedian; Jack Edmund, the leading man; Harry Pearle, a boy actor; Kate Tardwell, the wardrobe mistress for the company; and Ned Lowenscroft, the actor who played Beatrice.
Pantagraph - Much ado about something in spellbinding 'Elizabeth' by Tricia Stiller - I'll begin this review with a confession: I had to make an educated guess at the running time of the opening night performance of "Elizabeth Rex," for I was so completely captivated, so thoroughly engaged by every nuance of this production, that to me, time ceased to matter. ... See more
Timothy Findley's Elizabeth Rex is a historical fantasy, elaborately and deftly spun.
The play was commissioned by the Stratford Festival, workshopped there in 1997, and played to largely positive reviews in its first full staging in the summer of 2000, directed by Martha Henry. The play won that year's Governor General's Award for Drama in Canada.
Findley's play weaves highly modern reflections on identity and gender politics within Shakespeare's world, sometimes muddying the line between what is received history and what is his invention. On the eve of the execution of Robert Devereaux, 2nd Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth called for a performance by Shakespeare's company, The Lord Chamberlain's Men, and they did perform Much Ado About Nothing for her – even though she had her own company for whom she served as patron, The Queen's Men. Queen Elizabeth would probably have never sought solace by spending the night in a barn with a theatre troupe, however, even if that troupe was Shakespeare's. Ned Lowenscroft, her gender-bending tutor for the night in Elizabeth Rex, is likewise a fabrication, but we might also see him as a composite of historical characters that populated the theatre companies of the period. Most were men on the margins, regardless of their sexual identity. Had she met any of the players after the performance, all would have been men, although the actor playing Beatrice would have probably been much younger than Ned Lowenscroft.
The Queen did have a close personal relationship with the Earl of Essex, before politics won out. Like the relationship of Antony and Cleopatra, the rumored relationship of Elizabeth and Essex has caused 20th century authors and historians to ponder the implications and to ask, "What if?" Maxwell Anderson's blank verse play Elizabeth the Queen took romance between the Queen and Essex as its subject. It ran 147 performances on Broadway in 1930-31, a respectable showing for that period, directed by Philip Moeller and starring Lynne Fontanne and Alfred Lunt. It was then adapted for film in 1939 as The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, starring Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, and again in 1968 for television as Elizabeth the Queen, starring Judith Anderson and Charlton Heston.
Essex's ties to the Queen were many, although he was more than thirty years younger than her. Anne Boleyn, the Queen's mother, was sister to Essex's maternal great-grandmother. Essex's godfather and stepfather, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicister, was a favorite of the Queen's, and for many years, had been her suitor. In some ways, Essex would seem to have stepped into the role played by Dudley in the Queen's life, and for a time, his witty and flirtatious nature and handsome carriage served him well. It would not last.
Essex failed and humiliated England during the Nine Year's War in Ireland, when he arranged a truce rather than emerging victorious. He then sailed home for England without the Queen's consent, a move that the Privy Council would later label as desertion of duty. Essentially sentenced to house arrest for this deviation from plans, he was forced into a retirement that he could not afford.
He rallied supporters for a rebellion, including Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, who is believed to be the "Fair Youth" of Shakespeare's sonnets. On the eve of the rebellion, Essex demanded that the Lord Chamberlain's Men revive Richard II, and they obliged, putting the full company in a precarious position with the crown once the rebellion was known — and perhaps shedding light on the degree of the company's willingness to agree to a performance for the Queen on the eve of Essex's execution just a few weeks later.
On the morning of February 8, 1601, Essex and his supporters marched from Essex House into the City of London to confront the Queen. He was immediately labeled a traitor, retreated to Essex House, and finally surrendered. Both he and Southampton were tried and sentenced to execution, though Southampton's sentence was commuted to life, and then, with the ascension of James I to the throne, erased altogether. Essex was beheaded on the morning of February 25, 1601, on Tower Green, the last beheading to have taken place on the Tower of London.
Elizabeth did have the power to spare Essex, but she had too many reasons not to. Did she genuinely feel in danger for her life with the threat of rebellion? Perhaps. Would she have felt as torn by her decision as Findley's play depicts her to be? Or was she the consummate politician, resolute and calculating?
Like Cleopatra, who also comes to life on this season's stage, Queen Elizabeth I lives richly in our imaginations. She is Gloriana, owing to Edmund Spenser's famous dedication of The Fairie Queene: "The most High, Mightie and Magnificent Empresses renowned for pietie, virtue and all gratious government." She is the Virgin Queen, whose "virtue" may be more debated through the centuries than her political decisions. She is in many ways an enigma.
Findley writes, "What emerged, for me, from this barn filled with contradictions and emotional conflicts, was a sense that neither gender nor sexuality, politics nor ambition, are as important as integrity...This echoes Polonius's advice in Hamlet: 'This above all: to thine own self be true.'"
In Shakespeare and Elizabeth: The Meeting of Two Myths, Helen Hackett notes that the play's argument for personal integrity — of being true to oneself, a la Polonius — is less a call to Renaissance ideals than to late 20th century theories of identity construction. Hackett observes, "It would be disappointing if the central message of this seemingly radical play turned out to be merely a reiteration of the trite proverbial wisdom of Polonius. Yet Findley's comment is in keeping with turn-of-the-century identity politics in that the play explores identity as something that is not fixed and innate but has to be acquired and invented. Being true to oneself may mean casting off origins and discarding an identity imposed by social convention. Integrity in this play is not something to be preserved but something to be discovered, perhaps in surprising places; something to be imagined and created."
For further reading:
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