REVIEW: Swive (Elizabeth) at the Georgian Theatre Royal

The Tudors represent one of the most popular periods of English history. Most of us learnt about them at school and the exploits of their reigns are etched into our memory banks – the six wives of Henry VIII; the burnings at the stake sanctioned by Bloody Mary; and the defeat of the Spanish Armada and execution of Mary Queen of Scots under Elizabeth.

But what about the monarchs themselves? Elizabeth reigned for 44 years and lived through 73 years of the 118-year-long dynasty. She seemed to survive her early years against all odds (as a sitting threat to the occupants of the throne who preceded her) and when she did take the crown she was faced with an all-male patriarchal court, hell-bent on marrying her off to produce heirs and secure the succession.

Swive (Elizabeth) is a new play by Ella Hickson (premiered in 2019) that seeks to reveal the woman behind the textbook as a figure who used both her considerable intellect and femininity to face down the many threats to her existence and become one of the most influential rulers in English history.

Incidentally, Swive is an archaic word for sexual intercourse, something Elizabeth reputedly never had and led to her label as the Virgin Queen. The play neither disputes or confirms this but shows how the commodification of – and withholding of – played its part in Elizabeth’s rise to power and her ability to keep hold of it.

The action of the play takes place over a period of 39 years in Elizabeth’s life: starting at the age of 13, when her father Henry VIII died, to the age of 52 when Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded at Fotherinhay Castle. The role of Elizabeth is split between two actresses (Princess Elizabeth and Queen Elizabeth) with a colourful cast of supporting characters including stepmother and husband Catherine Parr and Thomas Seymour; sister Mary Tudor; advisor and statesman William Cecil; lady in waiting and rival Katherine Grey; and love interest Robert Dudley.

The portrayal of Elizabeth is obviously crucial to the play’s success and the production was blessed in having two strong actresses in the title role. Charlotte Finn gave a very convincing performance as the flirtatious and beguiling princess and Beki Stevenson was formidable and commanding as the cold-eyed maturing Queen. The transition between the two roles was very believable with certain mannerisms adopted by both actresses and some particularly powerful moments when both appear together on stage.

In fact, the whole cast were excellent in this polished production directed by RAD’s stalwart Gregan Davis. Jodie Martin effectively portrayed the sour but vulnerable Mary Tudor; James Sanderson and Helena Langford came together as Catherine Parr and husband Thomas Seymour to represent an early source of political and emotional danger; the constant presence of the manipulative William Cecil was admirably provided by Charlie Grumbley; Eleanor Harland excelled as the political pawn Katherine Grey; and Edward Batchelor cut a dashing Robert Dudley. Cameo roles were undertaken by Lee Bowles and Alex Caffrey as the worldly washerwoman who represented the voice of the people – often with huge, understated humour.

One of the production’s key strengths was its rich and elaborate costumes which were accentuated by the simplicity of the plain black backdrops that made up the minimalist set. This was nicely offset by the musical accompaniment of Trouvere Minstrels – Gill Page and Paul Leigh – whose superb playing beautifully conjured the atmosphere of the Tudor court. The use of a monitor at the front of the stage to broadcast key dates and facts was also very effective. Death was ever present and swift in this turbulent world and the demise of characters was regularly flashed onto the screen as a cruel reminder of their fate.

At the end of the evening, the audience certainly left better acquainted with this formidable and complex character who was as much shaped by the times she lived in as she herself influenced the historical events that are her legacy. Elizabeth had a vulnerability (she couldn’t sleep because she was afraid of the dark – a result of the night left alone when her mother was executed) but also displayed a hard, cruel streak (taking delight in the butchering of a stag) no doubt the result of being a victim herself when she was imprisoned in the Tower; and she couldn’t allow herself to love because she would inevitably have had to relinquish some of her power that she so successfully hung onto.

Elizabeth remains an enigma. Mastermind. Seductress. Survivor. You decide.