‘The audience want to connect with her’: portraying the Queen after her death

<span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

They all wondered, says actor Marion Bailey, “can we do this play now?” Handbagged was due to begin previews at London’s Kiln theatre last Friday, then news broke of the Queen’s death. That performance was cancelled but the cast took to the stage on Saturday with some trepidation. How would audiences react to a play about the Queen’s meetings with Margaret Thatcher (and less than a week since the real monarch had met another female Conservative prime minister)?

“We were sort of prepared for anything,” says Bailey, who plays the older version of two Queen Elizabeths (reprising her role from the original 2013 production). On stage, they held a minute’s silence and director Indhu Rubasingham gave a speech. “But the audience seemed to be up for it immediately,” says Bailey. “They wanted to laugh. They wanted to, on some level, celebrate the Queen.”

“People are really on your side and really wanting to see her and connect with her,” says Abigail Cruttenden, who plays the younger Queen. There is new resonance to her lines, many taken from real life, “and you’re aware of it for the audience”.

The audience seemed to be up for it immediately – they wanted to laugh and celebrate the Queen

Marion Bailey

Moira Buffini’s play imagines the conversations between the Queen and Thatcher. Despite superficial similarities – their ages, the hair, the handbags, both female leaders in a male world – here they are poles apart. It’s a sign of the Queen’s political inscrutability that it doesn’t feel too far-fetched that Buffini imagines her as something of a socialist, or at least that her values are wildly at odds with Thatcher’s. “Although she’s teased slightly, and gently,” says Bailey, “[in the play] the Queen is kind of the goodie, compared with Thatcher. She’s the one that represents decency, and care for society. If she’d been an unsympathetic character, it would have been tougher to do.”

Both actors have played royalty before – Bailey was the Queen Mother in TV series The Crown, and Cruttenden played Elizabeth I in the play Swive [Elizabeth] – but neither compare to the omnipresence of the late Queen. To prepare, they both watched a lot of documentaries and footage of her. Getting the voice right was key, says Cruttenden. “I was very aware of her [love of] riding and walking,” she says. The monarch’s lifelong horse-riding in particular – she was reported to have been riding just a few months ago – “does affect the way you stand”. Both actors have new appreciation for the Queen’s stamina. “My arm is aching from holding the handbag,” says Cruttenden, with a laugh. “Not to mention the feet,” says Bailey. “And that’s just doing one play a day,” adds Cruttenden.

Members of the Household Cavalry make their way along the Mall in London ahead of the coffin carrying Queen Elizabeth II.
Members of the Household Cavalry make their way along the Mall in London ahead of the coffin carrying Queen Elizabeth II. Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

Handbagged, thinks Cruttenden, reveals the Queen’s sense of humour. The older queen, says Bailey, “allows herself to be slightly cheekier in the play. I think she was trying to follow a protocol that she felt she could let go of a little bit as she got older. I’m the one mugging and pulling faces in the background, while young Liz is attempting to have a serious conversation with the young Thatcher.”

My arm is aching from holding the handbag!

Abigail Cruttenden

What Cruttenden noticed in viewing the Queen over the years, she says, slipping into the present tense, “which puts her aside from another generically posh person is that she doesn’t speak down to anybody, ever. She’s not patronising. Really listening, very personally engaged, [when] it would be easy not to be.” The Queen gave her own performance, says Bailey, “that she had to give, in her view, to society – what she felt was her role and her destiny. It’s quite a generous way of living your life in a sense, selfless. It’s not like she could ever one morning wake up and think ‘right, that’s it’. She just kept on with it.”

Related: From King Charles III to King Lear: what theatre tells us about taking the throne

Is Her Majesty a socialist, wonders Thatcher. “That’s the gag,” says Bailey. “Of course she wasn’t a socialist, but she certainly believed that society was an entity, and that she symbolised that society.” She tried to be unifying; Thatcher was divisive. “For me, she was of a postwar generation who had a sense of duty and believed in certain values. She’d come out of the war at a time when there was a national health service emerging, there was state broadcasting, there was the welfare state. There’s a lot of that in the play. Then along came Thatcher in the 80s and started to strip all that away. It must have been very distressing.” She pauses. “I say ‘must have’ – that is in my imagination.” It feels pertinent to be doing the play now, she adds, “when those values are being undermined and left in the trash can, it feels.”

On the day after the Queen’s death, they were in rehearsals and both actors started welling up during one speech. They say the emotion took them by surprise. Cruttenden was pleased to “push through it in rehearsal”, knowing that on stage, she would be fine. Bailey dealt with it by channelling the Queen herself. “I thought to myself, look, she’d have just got on with it.”