‘Swive [Elizabeth]’ review

Theatre, Drama
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
Swive [Elizabeth], 2019
Photograph: Johan Persson

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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Ella Hickson’s latest is a murderously intense drama about Elizabeth I’s ascent

There is something of Sarah Kane’s stark ferocity to this savage play about Elizabeth I’s rise to power by playwright Ella Hickson. 

Natalie Abrahami’s production is a searing 90 minutes that deals with history you’ll probably know, from angles you might not. ‘Swive [Elizabeth]’ repeatedly touches on the trauma the three-year-old princess suffered when she was left alone in the dark with a sleeping lady-in-waiting while her mother, Anne Boleyn, was taken away to be executed. And it follows the harsh, morally compromised scrabble to the top that she fought in subsequent years, manoeuvring around the machinations of siblings and relatives who saw her very existence as a threat.

Following a sarcastic metatheatrical intro from Abigail Cruttenden’s older Queen Elizabeth, the first half of the play sees Nina Cassells play her as the adolescent Princess Elizabeth, circumventing the schemes of her brother Edward and sister Mary as she manipulates – sometimes deeply uncomfortably, given the yawning age difference between them – a series of older male nobles to help her ascent. Yet at no point does she seem like a petty schemer, or consumed with a lust for power: it’s always clear that it’s this or death.

Swive is an archaic word for sexual intercourse, something Elizabeth reputedly never had. Hickson never disputes this (although never confirms it either), but shows how the commodification of, promise of, and above all withholding of her body enabled Elizabeth’s rise. She is furious at Mary’s ceding of power to her husband Philip, and contemptuous of her sister’s desperation for an heir: she resolves to be her own woman entirely. The play is happy to point to its own unreliability, but the suggestion here is that if Elizabeth really never did have sex, it was a monumental act of self-control, wilfully severing part of her humanity in the name of preserving her life. 

With a cast of just four, the play is directed with a sardonic intensity by Abrahami (also credited as co-creator) that often seeks to subvert the Sam Wanamaker space: Cruttenden’s Queen Elizabeth jokes about its replica status, and there is some extremely clever lighting work, for which I assume we can credit ‘candle consultant’ Prema Mehta. There’s also a wonderfully ominous percussive score from Angus MacRae that imbues the whole thing with a visceral air of doom. 

There’s always been something of a libertarian streak to Hickson’s work, and in the end her message seems to be that women have a right to fight hard, fight dirty, trample over others, do anything to survive in a world that’s fundamentally hostile to them and their bodies. It’s a depressing conclusion, and yet it’s hard not to be impressed by Elizabeth’s cold-eyed triumph.

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