"Queens of blood and honour"
by Avril Silk on 19/02/17

I wholeheartedly applaud the vision that inspired the collaboration of Sasha Herriman of Bluebirds, Gloria Lawrence of Storytree and Philip Kingslan John of Four of Swords to create ‘Nzingabeth!’. The play portrays a fictitious, musical meeting between Elizabeth I of England and the proud African Queen Ana Nzinga. ‘Nzingabeth!’ is bold and brave and deserves support and encouragement.

This work-in-progress has much to commend it; live music from African drumming to Elizabethan madrigals; shed-loads of imagination and creative talent; truly ingenious costume design – although my theatrical costumier ancestor is whispering in my ear that Elizabeth would have worn a farthingale, not a bustle. Such elaborate underpinnings could be an asset; improving the hang of Elizabeth’s costume in the first instance and being discarded/reinstated when appropriate to suggest the tension between structure and freedom.

As the warrior queens discussed the need for facing and overcoming their enemies, they explored rich territories of gender, race, politics and slavery, all the time leading to the famous words that Queen Elizabeth would use to inspire her troops at Tilbury, in preparation for repelling the expected invasion by the Spanish Armada.

“I am … resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too…”

These stirring words were set to music in ‘Nzingabeth’, to great effect. I hope what I have to say next will be taken as constructive and help with the development of this potentially impressive work. The collaboration needs to move towards a greater coherence – there were some very ragged edges and uncertain starts and ends to the songs during the performance at Taunton’s Brewhouse. Most of all, however, I was troubled by the interpretation of Elizabeth. I could have believed her distracted by affairs of state; sad and angry because of her favourite Robert Dudley’s marriage; maybe even concerned for his health as he neared the end of his life. After thirty years of power I could have accepted weariness and fear for the future. What I couldn’t accept was scattiness. I realise that this led to very effective contrasts with Gloria Lawrence’s down-to-earth, sensual, impetuous, majestic Ana Nzinga, but it was to the detriment of the character of Elizabeth. It played as if she discovered her strength because of the meeting, whereas re-discovering her perhaps temporarily faltering strength would work better. After thirty years on the throne Gloriana knew a great deal about the role of monarch – hence her surefooted theatricality in appearing at Tilbury in virginal white with a silver cuirass and mounted on a grey gelding.

The final scene showed Sasha Herriman’s impressive, commanding presence fully realised – we needed glimpses of Elizabeth's majesty throughout the play. Sasha's beautiful singing was a real treat but please, not Harry Champion’s signature song! ‘I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am’ just jarred and again, detracted from Elizabeth’s dignity, which I doubt was easily lost, not even under the influence of caterpillar juice. I appreciate the wish to avoid the cliché of ‘Greensleeves’ but oh, how I would have preferred it. Henry VIII was not a joke. He became a cruel tyrant who executed Elizabeth’s mother. No wonder Elizabeth remained unmarried. Why would she want to surrender power to a man who might use and discard her as Henry discarded Anne Boleyn? I see this as being central to the cult of her virginity and exploration of this would have added another layer to the already entertaining scene about female sexuality.

It is always exciting to glimpse terrific potential and I believe that such a talented team will go on to do full justice to the courage of their vision. I wish them well.

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