Edinburgh Fringe: From Bloody Mary to Maggie - The Best Political and Historical Drama
If you think of the Edinburgh Fringe it is most likely the comedians and comedy shows that first come to mind as well as some of the bigger drama productions. However, if like me you are a politics and history geek at heart then the fringe is the place for you, with a myriad of shows to cater to your every desire. Many are one man shows and often relatively small productions off the beaten track whilst others have garnered more attention. With this in mind I have chosen five shows within this theme which I would recommend.
Fringe veteran Pip Utton stars in this wonderfully engaging one man show that tackles the legacy of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Although a seemingly impossible thing to explain in just an hour, Utton takes on the subject with the same characteristic charm and objectivity that marked some of his previous guises as Churchill and Chaplin. You really get two characters for one, as Utton plays both the actor ‘playing Maggie’ as well as the Iron Lady herself. It starts off with Utton as the actor preparing for the role before going into a section where he embodies the character. This section departs from previous one man shows as it allows the audience to question Utton as Thatcher.
The characterisation is not perfect but it is still very easy to suspend your disbelief as you are invited to quiz Maggie on pretty much anything. The responses are well thought out with a degree of wit that is always good to see when it comes to improvisation. You are left with the feeling that you could have asked absolutely anything and an answer would be given that is perfectly believable - even something the lady herself would have said.
The final part sees Utton go back to the actor who debates the struggle with playing the character and reconciling it with his own background. This is all done without a sense of preaching or agenda which, when it comes to Margaret Thatcher, is such a rare and refreshing thing to see.
Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London
A very interesting one woman show that seeks to dramatise the 1942 visit of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to London: the visit itself is cleverly interspersed with exerts and information about Mrs Roosevelt’s own life, giving a fairly rounded biographic of one of the most fascinating Presidential wives. Her intellect, wit and work ethic really shine through in this production, masterfully played by Alison Skilbeck. The details of her personal life are also not skated over, from the death of her parents to the possible romantic relationships she had with several prominent women.
The play starts off with Eleanor in the 1960s looking back on her trip. Occasionally the play does jump between these two periods which can be slightly confusing for the audience but also effectively breaks up what could have been just a narrative of the visit. There are occasional comedic elements, such as the compliments Eleanor received in Britain for not having a strong American accent. You come away from the play with the realisation that Mrs Roosevelt was a force to be reckoned with, which may explain why she was fundamental in helping draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as her appointment as first Chairperson of the U.N Commission on Human Rights.
A thoroughly enjoyable show and strongly recommended for those interested in WW2 or strong female characters in general.
Hess is a tale from the other side of the war starring the much less sympathetic character of Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s erstwhile ‘Deputy Fuhrer’. Telling his story as an old man in Spandau prison proudly proclaiming himself as the world’s most expensive prisoner, Hess (played expertly by Derek Crawford Munn) manages to faithfully tell his side in a thoroughly plausible way, as if you were indeed in the presence of the Nazi war criminal.
Clearly a lot of research has gone into the script and Munn’s characterisation, from Hess’ hypochondria to his eccentric idiosyncratic beliefs in mysticism. What emerges is an informative and provocative piece, told by a real human being not a clear cut monster. It is also biographic, as Hess goes through his life from being born in Alexandria to his infamous flight to London. It is more than just a retelling of history however, with Hess also detailing the dull monotony of solitary life in prison and the simple pleasures he receives, such as visits from family or listening to the Beatles. These seemingly trivial points certainly do not detract from the main themes of why Hess is there in the first place, although he himself continues to repeat (though not convince even himself) that he was never convicted of ‘Crimes Against Humanity’.
Although the subject matter is heavy and Munn does tend to raise his voice without warning, this is a play that will interest all those fascinated by the worst elements of society: how men can become villains.
An interesting hybrid play, that is both historical and modern, writer Bernie C Byrnes has taken the themes of politics and religious extremism of today and cleverly woven them with the historical reign of Mary I. This was telling when you first go into the small theatre, where you see the actress playing Mary reading a newspaper and from there she tells her own story but mixes in contemporary quotes, speeches and events. It is all done seamlessly and sometimes you may miss some of the references. It is a sophisticated piece of writing and extremely well executed.
At 50 minutes it is on the short side, but this makes it all the more concise and poignant. Like ‘Playing Maggie’ there is not a clear political bias or agenda (although the use of Cameron’s face on the picture in the fringe guide may seem to imply otherwise). The acting was good all round and they made the most of the space.
This production does not seem to have had the same recognition as others, with only around 10 people in the audience when I went to see it, which is a tremendous shame. I can highly recommend this thought-provoking play which will suit both budding historians and politicians alike.
Ladies in Waiting: The Judgement of Henry VIII
Sticking with the Tudors, the final play I would recommend is also the only one that is not a one man show.
The premise itself should be enough to pique most people’s interest as Henry VIII is subjected to a judgement by his wives. Admittedly two of them are alive at the point of Henry’s death, but that does not matter as it seems to be taking place in a space outside of time.
Henry awakes to find he is no longer able to command and intimidate. The King is then slowly subjected one by one to his former wives and lovers who challenge him on how they were treated. Although the accents seem a little off at times, the acting is particularly strong with the female characters embodying each wife with a distinct and clear personality, at least partly based on contemporary sources. The order in which Henry is judged may strike some people as strange, starting with fourth wife Anne of Cleves and ending with the first, Catherine of Aragon.
At an hour and a half this is one of the longer plays on the list, but due to the nature of the play this should not be surprising. As well as allowing the audience to satisfy their desire to see Henry scrutinised for his crimes, the play also touches on issues of commerciality and how historical figures are viewed in contemporary society. Henry realises by the end that not only is Elizabeth his greatest legacy but that his own image has become a parody and a joke, the oafish tyrant ordering executions.
Despite some of its weaknesses in terms of dialogue this is well worth a watch and thoroughly enjoyable, the sort of play that provokes debates and discussions afterwards as you head off to the pub with friends.
About the author
Stewart holds a PhD in eighteenth century political history from UCL, having previously studied for a BA and MA in history at Royal Holloway, University of London.
He is currently working as a Part-Time Tutor for Oxford University’s Continuing Education Department as well as helping to create and launch an online historical archive of magazine-style feature articles written by history graduates called The Past.
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