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Handbagged Depicts Private Meetings Between Margaret Thatcher and the Queen

Moira Buffini takes on two of the most famous women in British history.

Beth Hylton, Cody Leroy Wilson, and Susan Lynskey star in Moira Buffini's Handbagged, directed by Indhu Rubasingham, at 59E59 Theaters.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Did British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth II secretly hate each other? Their frosty relations have been rumored for years, most recently in Peter Morgan's The Audience. Like that delightful bit of royal fan-fic, Moira Buffini's Handbagged speculates on what was said behind closed doors during the queen's weekly audience with the prime minister. Unapologetically theatrical, it offers a primer on British politics in the '80s, as well as a probing look into the way personal relationships can color global events.

While it has become de rigueur for queens of pop like Donna Summer and Cher to be depicted onstage by three actors (such is their magnitude), the world's actual longest-reigning queen only gets two: Anita Carey plays Q, an older version of Queen Elizabeth, and Beth Hylton plays Liz, the vigorous 53-year-old who first met Margaret Thatcher in 1979 when she was elected PM. Not to be outdone, the Iron Lady also gets two avatars: an older (wiser?) baroness named T (Kate Fahy), and Mags (Susan Lynskey), the free-market paladin who rides into 10 Downing on a crusade to make Britain great again.

Anita Carey plays Q, Beth Hylton plays Liz, Susan Lynskey plays Mags, and Kate Fahy plays T in Handbagged.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Buffini walks us through 11 years of teatime meetings, during which the monarch attempts to advise and warn the PM about issues like the miners' strike, the situation in Northern Ireland, and the Falklands War. Ever the meritocrat, Thatcher ignores the counsel of this unelected mentor, often treating their audiences like a tiresome chore. The two queens and two Maggies offer commentary throughout, with the older and younger versions often contradicting one another in a dramatic depiction of the fallibility of memory.

All other roles (like Prince Philip, Denis Thatcher, Michael Shea, and Nancy Reagan) are taken by either Cody LeRoy Wilson or John Lescault, both masters of many dialects and quick changes. They hilariously fight over the role of hapless Labour leader Neil Kinnock. Meanwhile, the older Thatcher seems baffled by this avant-garde theatrical device, incredulously asking Lescault, "How can you be Peter Carrington when you're Denis?"

Kate Fahy, John Lescault, Cody LeRoy Wilson, Beth Hylton, and Susan Lynskey appear in Handbagged.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Such gleeful metatheatricality pervades Handbagged. Buffini makes no attempt to mask the artificiality of the theater, and in doing so, she is free to unleash its full potential. We discover a lot about the subject, which isn't just the relationship between two famous women, but the effect Thatcher's premiership had on average Britons (Wilson becomes a powerful voice for this working class, although he is no match for the resonant Fahy, who rebuffs his attempts to steer the conversation). At the same time, Buffini's script teems with humor and wit, making us laugh as we learn. She's like Brecht, but fun.

Director Indhu Rubasingham supports the script with an agile production that easily facilitates all of the required leaps of space and time. Richard Kent's all-white set is able to transform into whatever it needs to be, and under the focused lighting of Jesse Belsky, it does. Carolyn Downing's sound design helps to quickly shift the tone and setting. Blackouts are entirely absent from the production, and they are not missed. Kent (who also did costumes) ties the younger characters to their older counterparts with color and cut: a Tory blue that darkens with age for Thatcher, a cheery mustard that becomes burnt orange for the Queen. Each actor sports a fabulous brooch, a black handbag, and an iconic helmet of hair (wigs by Carole Hancock and Dori Beau Seigneur).

John Lescault plays Ronald Reagan (center) as the two Queens and two Thatchers look on in Handbagged.
(© Carol Rosegg)

The four main actors inhabit their roles well. Hylton is especially delightful as Liz, capturing the mischievous spirit and cheeky smile of a monarch who knows how to walk right up to the line of constitutionality during her Christmas speech without ever crossing it. Far more severe, Fahy is spot-on in her mimicry of Thatcher's breathy, resounding diction. Her pronunciation is not just "received" but signed, sealed, and delivered. She's not the kind of person who speaks with you, but at you.

And perhaps that is because Thatcher, as depicted here, sees herself in historic terms, driven by a mission so vital to the survival of her country that it justifies all sorts of illiberal behavior (at least in her mind). That makes her no less a wild-eyed revolutionary than the communists she abhors. And while Fahy's delivery has the power to stir the soul, it becomes difficult to take her criticisms of undemocratic regimes seriously when she's sending police to violently suppress protesters in Trafalgar Square.

Kate Fahy and Susan Lynskey play Margaret Thatcher at different ages in Handbagged.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Handbagged is sympathetic to its subjects, but Buffini is clear-eyed about the larger implications of their tragic flaws — in the case of Thatcher, an astounding lack of empathy. Buffini succeeded in convincing me that the least interesting aspect of Thatcher's tenure was whether or not she got along with the queen. In a culture obsessed with catfights between famous women, that's a real accomplishment.