Preview: Queen Margaret

She fascinated playwrights 400 years ago and she fascinates them now. We speak to the woman playing the formidable Queen Margaret of Anjou

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“She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France… Women are soft, mild, pitiful, and flexible; Thou stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless,” is how Shakespeare describes Queen Margaret in his 1595 play Henry VI Part III.

It seems Shakespeare had a fascination with the young queen. She is the only character to appear alive in four of the Bard’s plays, and his portrayal of Margaret as a formidable, power-hungry ruler has had much to do with how she has been understood since.

But when playwright Jeanie O’Hare and director Elizabeth Freestone read the real-life Margaret of Anjou’s private letters, they found her to be far removed from her reputation. To them, the real Queen Margaret was a chatty, forthright and intelligent woman, and their research has culminated in a new play, Queen Margaret, which makes its world premiere at Manchester’s Royal Exchange this month.

With Jade Anouka in the lead role, Queen Margaret retells the story of the Wars of the Roses through the eyes of the queen herself, throwing a feminist perspective on the tale.

“They call her the she-wolf, like she is this vicious woman who is out for blood, and elements of that might be true,” says Anouka. “But then there’s the idea that there is this woman in what was a male world leading an army, it’s like Joan of Arc, so are they really as bad as what people say, or is it just that men at the time didn’t expect women to have feelings of anger or feelings of hate or revenge? Those feelings weren’t associated with women at that time, so I think it will be really interesting meeting this character with our modern ears and modern eyes and how we feel about a woman leading a country and an army.

“She was doing what at the time many kings would have done in that situation, but because she is a woman she’s remembered in a very different way.”

Queen Margaret is the latest in a line-up of Shakespeare’s characters to be portrayed by Anouka in recent years. Last year she celebrated a decade of stage success and took on the roles of Marc Antony in Julius Caesar, Ariel in The Tempest and Hotspur in Henry IV – part of Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy. But although Anouka is now well acquainted with Shakespeare’s work, she admits that growing up she had little interest.

“I had a really mixed idea of Shakespeare,” she says. “Doing Shakespeare and being involved and seeing it done really well can really change your view on it, and that’s what happened to me.”

Anouka says she is determined to challenge young people’s perceptions about what they can achieve on stage, regardless of their background.

“When Shakespeare’s plays were written they were for everyone,” she says. “It wasn’t supposed to just be for the upper classes, and then somehow it has got lost along the way and people just think it is posh.

“If you never see someone like you, who looks like you or has a similar background in these sort of roles, then how are you ever going to believe that it’s possible for you?

“These stories are universal, and that’s what I think is amazing about Shakespeare.

“If you get past the idea that it’s just for a certain class of people or a certain type of people, actually the stories and situations that the characters are in are actually really relatable.”

Queen Margaret is at the Royal Exchange, 14 Sept-6 Oct (royalexchange.co.uk)

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