The main part of Elizabeth Rex calls for a highly skilled player, and in Stephanie Beacham it gets one – seldom have I seen a more convincing impersonation of Judi Dench. But Beacham doesn't stop there. Colouring her role with hints of Bette Davis and Margaret Thatcher, she plants her chin on her chest, sticks out her stomach and fires off such lines as, "if I spare him, I will kill the man in me that is England's only defence against her enemies''.
The queen is referring to her erstwhile lover, Essex, who, having led an unsuccessful revolt against her, is spending the last night of his life in The Tower. On that night, the real Elizabeth commanded Shakespeare's company to perform for her, a fact that Timothy Findley embroiders for his play about those male-female, public-private, power- vulnerability things. He has the queen and two of her waiting women visit, after the performance, the barn that serves the Lord Chamberlain's men as green room, dressing room, and sleeping quarters for themselves and their tame bear.
Elizabeth isn't as interested in the bard as in Ned Lowenscroft, the actor she has just admired as Beatrice, a role with which she identifies. But for Ned, royal favour has come too late and means too little. He is dying of syphilis, and he returns the queen's praise with bad-tempered thrusts at a women who refuses to reprieve a man from death. She has so unsexed herself as to deserve the title "Rex'' rather than "Regina''.
Findley has not constructed a drama but (and I promise never to use this phrase again) an exploration of gender issues. Elizabeth Rex begins as the actors troop off stage with predictable grumbling and chit-chat about their business, then segues into anger and sorrow at one's conflicting roles in love and work. If we're unsure of his intentions, Findley provides a commendable, if confusing, motto: "Neither gender nor sexuality, politics nor ambition, are as important as integrity.''
One is dubious, however, about his grasp of the last quality, as he amplifies his remark by quoting Hamlet's Polonius, as if the famous "advice'' speech were true wisdom and not a send-up of a mean-spirited, sententious old fool. Findley connects our sensibility to that of the play's era not only with his observation that career women really can't have it all, but with his sympathy for Ned, who has caught his fatal illness from another man.
"If you'd put it where it belonged, it wouldn't have killed you," says the company's Lothario, with more homophobia than medical nous. But Elizabeth takes a broader view: "All of us has the pox. Life is a pox. It leaves its marks on all of us." As Schopenhauer used to say, so true.
Jonathan Church's production, full of solitary actors fiddling with make-up boxes while the main characters talk, emphasises how small this play really is. As Ned, James Dreyfus is loudly petulant rather than passionate, but George Costiagan contributes a welcome detachment, as a Will long used to setting aside his newest masterpiece in order to pour oil on the troubled waters of his paddling pool.
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