“Are you watching ‘The Crown?’” asked the gentleman one seat over, just as the lights went up for intermission—or “the interval,” as Queen Elizabeth called it—at Round House Theatre recently. “I feel like I’m watching coming attractions!”
Reader, he was not.
What he was watching, “Handbagged,” is the true story of a monarch and a prime minister, both women of the same age; of the time they spent at the helm of Great Britain and of the curious things that happened to them. Warm, funny and engaging, it’s the story of two women, told by a woman, the playwright Moira Buffini, directed by a woman, Indhu Rubasingham, and delivered by four women: Kate Fahy and Susan Lynskey, portraying older-and-younger Margaret Thatcher, and Beth Hylton and Jennifer Mendenhall playing older-and-younger Queen Elizabeth II. Two more actors, both male, round out the cast in a most delightful way, and Cody LeRoy Wilson and John Lescault do an excellent job—but this is about the ladies.
Which is fitting, because “Handbagged” is part of Women’s Voices Theater Festival, whereby a consortium of 24 theaters across the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area have united to present new plays by women playwrights and women-led collectives. So, this American premiere of the Olivier Award-winning “Handbagged” is part of a citywide collaboration. It’s also hilarious, showcasing the spectrum of British humor from smart and dry to wink-nudge.
“’Handbagged’ began at the Tricycle Theatre in London,” explained Kate Fahy, the well-known British actor who, as older Margaret Thatcher, takes on the Iron Lady’s winged bouffant and power suit. “A year or so after that I did a play— a different play—there, and Indhu Rubasingham, who is the director both of ‘Handbagged’ and the artistic director of that theater, asked me if I would consider doing the tour.”
Fahy reread the script. “You don’t want to go away from town unless you’ve got something really meaty to do,” she explained, adding, “It was fantastic.”
The only Brit in a cast of Americans, Fahy is having a wonderful time portraying one of the world’s most powerful women, even though Thatcher’s political views are diametrically opposed to her own.
“I was very, very against her,” said the Birmingham native. “I thought all her policies were pretty dreadful and I was in the thick of that. When she came into power in 1979 there was a repertory theater in every city in our country.” Arts-slashing budgets put an end to that, and “by the time she left in 1990, there were none; the theaters still existed, but there was no funding anywhere for people to run a repertory company. That used to be the backbone of our theater.”
Despite the fact that Fahy “didn’t like her at all,” the veteran actor confessed that playing Thatcher in “Handbagged is a breeze. “People would say, ‘How are you going to play Margaret Thatcher—you loathed her?’ But, of course, it’s no problem at all. All I have to do is play Moira Buffini’s play. She takes the stand–about the queen, about Margaret Thatcher; about the person and about the politician, and she does it so brilliantly that I don’t have to have any kind of attitude at all. Ultimately, I put all that to one side, because what she’s written is exactly what she wants to say.”
“Handbagged” is about the weekly meetings between the monarch and her prime minister, tracing the evolution of their relationship, their politics and the way they’re ultimately perceived on the world stage. Fahy calls it “a conversation between two powerful women.”
It is a conversation the audience gets to eavesdrop on, with the fourth wall smashed and the angle refocused most notably on the personal and professional relationship between Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter from the British Midlands who studied at Oxford before ascending through the political ranks, and Queen Elizabeth, the longest-reigning British monarch.
“Everyone loves the Queen,” Fahy said, noting that “Handbagged” premiered before the Netflix series “The Crown” sent Queen Elizabeth’s already impressive popularity skyrocketing. “They see her as a very powerful figure, really, because of her unwavering commitment to duty, I suppose.”
In Thatcher, too, Fahy sees and appreciates a similarly powerful (albeit perhaps less likeable) leader. “The British government was, and still is, peopled with privileged men,” Fahy observed. “She grew up in a small town in northern England, ‘above the shop.’”
Thatcher “had no privilege, but she had a lot of drive. She’s one of those rare people who had an idea that she wanted to do something in the world. She was entirely self-made, from her own will, her own ambition, her own gifts and her own sense of purpose.”
“Whether you liked her or not back in the day,” Fahy added, “there’s a little bit of nostalgia. Here was an absolutely committed stateswoman who believed utterly in what she believed in and never stopped striving to achieve that.”
“I was always, as a kid, a huge Anglophile,” admitted Beth Hylton, who grew up in rural southwestern Virginia and followed the adventures of Queen Elizabeth II and her family before playing the young queen—“Liz”—at Round House. “There’s a lot of stuff out there in the world about the queen, which generates a lot of excitement in our audience. Even if you’re not British, there’s a fondness for the queen and what she represents. There’s so much tumult in the world, and her stability, her certainty, is comforting. Her longevity and her solidness are inspirational to people.”
As for Thatcher, the D.C.-based actor pointed out that the former prime minister’s brand of political conservatism is also having a moment on the current world political stage. “The ability to look back on stuff is delightful because you have 20-20 vision,” Hylton said. “And I think Moira Buffini balances the personal and the political so beautifully.”
Indeed, the historical and the topical weave together onstage in a perfect dance that even non-Anglophiles can appreciate. “It’s a really exciting play to be doing right now—and it’s really funny!” said Hylton, noting that in addition to the interplay between Thatcher and the Queen, there’s a dynamic between the characters’ younger and older selves as each looks back and judges situations from a different point of view. “It’s an interesting lens; there’s an observational quality that we have as women—always judging ourselves.”
Even as they stand on the precipice of history, Hylton added, “the Queen and Margaret Thatcher are always navigating whether they did it right.”
The actors are navigating an extraordinary set of tasks: the four women are onstage throughout the entire play on a visually fascinating, but extremely minimalist set, dredging their way through a complicated historical narrative with wit, humor and humanity.
“I do know that everyone who sees me is going to gauge me against Claire Foy in ‘The Crown.’ That’s part of the fun,” Hylton said. “I can’t be Claire Foy and I can’t be the Queen, but I can represent the Queen, in the storytelling, for the audience. Whether they lean in and go with me… for the most part, people are really liking it.”
Washington DC, she added, is a politically savvy place—and the playwright has added some contemporary references to keep things sharp and up-to-date for the American audience. Hylton said it’s working. “For the most part, people are following along,” she reported. “There’s dry British humor, but there’s also straight, recognizable comedy.”
And straight history, too. Hylton insisted that “this is not sugarcoating Margaret Thatcher.
“There are people who love her, but the play deals with the problem of Margaret Thatcher, who was the first female prime minister of Britain, but was also terrifying.”
And this makes hers one of the historical women’s voices that matter. Men, Hylton observed, treated Thatcher with misogyny, and women refused to see her as a woman. Taken together with the voice of the Queen, it makes for a unique historical and social statement.
“I think that no matter where you sit on these two women, whether you like them or not, this rounds them out as people,” said Hylton. “You come away understanding why they behaved as they did, and what it might mean.”
And you come away laughing, whether you’re a fan of “The Crown” or not.
“It is really funny, we’ve had a lot of kids come and enjoy it,” Hylton said. “We may have had a few husbands asleep, but it’s a really good date night. There’s a lot of audience participation—it’s fun. It’s a really fun night at the theater.”
Almost too much fun. As Fahy puts it, “Handbagged” audiences need to be on their toes.
“One can hear sometimes, in the audience, that they laugh very hard at something and then they stop themselves because they don’t want to miss the next moment. It’s a quick-fire piece and it’s very, very funny.”
“Handbagged” runs through March 3 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Performances start at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, which start at $30, call 240-644-1100 or visit RoundHouseTheatre.org.