An Experimental Retelling of Shakespeare’s Queen Margaret

This weekend, Colby’s Strider Theater hosted a performance of the original play “The Life and Death of Queen Margaret.”  Based off of the portrayal of Queen Margaret in Shakespeare’s plays, it tells the story of this historical figure in a new and radical manner, brought to life by the unusual staging and dance elements that flow seamlessly with the period dialogue.

The play is written by Visiting Assistant Professor of Theater and Dance Toby Bercovici and Dan Morbyrne, who credit the text primarily to William Shakespeare and the development partially to the actors and dancers who collaborated with them throughout its journey.  It was performed by an all-female cast of varying ages from the Massachusetts-based company Real Live Theater, of which Morbyrne is a co-founder and Bercovici a member.

The play is a fictional portrayal of the real historical figure Queen Margaret of Anjou, a French princess who married King Henry VI of England in the mid-fifteenth century.  The product of a period of unrest and war in France and England, Margaret was married to Henry at only 15 years old, thinking that she would become a queen and rule as was her birthright.  Arriving to a xenophobic culture and a tenuous place in the court, Margaret took action to protect king and country when Henry himself failed to do so as he struggled with madness and grief and even spent a year in a coma.  “Margaret was the obvious candidate to safeguard her husband’s kingdom, but…she had two strikes against her, in that she was not only a woman, but a French woman,” commented Bercovici.  In the wake of Henry’s failure—which is partially ignored by Shakespeare—Margaret took extraordinary steps to rule as she believed she had the right in a society that sought to deny her that power.

This version of her draws less from actual historical fact and more from a combination of the literature depicting her and the creative direction Bercovici and Morbyrne decided to take.  Specifically, it chooses to retell her story as written by Shakespeare in his plays “Henry VI” and “Richard III” in a more sympathetic, feminist light.  Margaret faced abundant criticism and censure during her lifetime, and her role in the War of the Roses ensured that much of the primary sources passed down to us are little more than propaganda written by her enemies.  “Theater has a way of turning cruelty to kindness and slander to sympathy,” commented the play’s dramaturg Josh Platt.  Instead of judging her actions as stated by history and Shakespeare, the play instead asks us to consider Margaret as “a woman of flesh and blood…subject to desire, delight, pride, fear, and loss.”  Making the bold move to present Shakespeare’s text in a way that leads the audience to opposite conclusions than the Bard may have intended, Bercovici and Morbyrne succeed through their framing of the original in another light.

Visually, the play was stunning.  Opening with a haunting scene of Queen Margaret resting on an undulating bed, covered in a long crimson sheet that floated around her, the audience was immediately transfixed.  The minimalist setting and the almost exclusive usage of red and white colors on an otherwise black and empty stage made an impression itself, while serving to focus attention on the action instead of the backdrop.  All of the actors except for a few notable exceptions wore red and white clothing, and the colors provided further symbolism of character development, emotional underpinnings, and setting.  In addition to the color scheme, the sole source of furniture, props, and scenery were several tall, pale sticks of whittled wood that were used for everything from chairs, beds, and a bier as necessary.  These sticks were purportedly a metaphor for Margaret’s bones, and their stark presentation and reusable nature brought a more intimate sense to the action.  The music was a curious amalgam of wordless singing and other musical styles, and added an otherworldly quality to many scenes, particularly dream sequences such as the aforementioned opening.

While the play was primarily spoken and acted out in a standard manner, there was an added element of dance-like movement that was used to enhance the dramatic effect of choice moments.  The effect of the unusual staging was to bring the audience a more vivid presentation of the text, drawing us closer to the characters and their perspectives.  Audience member Jay Huskins ’19 commented on this:  “A lot of times when you have Shakespearean language, you have a kind of suspension of disbelief where you are more explicit with your actions in order to translate it better.  I feel that the movement component of the play allows this to go more smoothly, and so it’s less jarring to see the two combined.”

Finally, the play was acted out by an entirely female cast, reversing the Shakespearean tradition of casting men for all roles.  This aided the feminist angle that allows Queen Margaret to be the protagonist of her own story instead of a supporting character in a man’s story. In a genre that is still largely dominated by male actors, writers, directors, and producers, this gave the play a unique perspective on a historical figure.  The skillful combination of period text and modern avant-garde production elements depicting an unheard of take on an old tale makes “The Life and Death of Queen Margaret” a notable breath of fresh air to the genre.

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