Moira Buffini’s new play, Handbagged, has the Queen of England and Margaret Thatcher reflecting on their shared lives together. Elizabeth, despite her reputation for conservatism, is less than pleased with her reactionary PM, while Thatcher never loses the feeling that she’s being treated like the grocer’s daughter. It is a fitting juxtaposition of British power: the woman who did nothing and inherited everything alongside the woman whose only patrimony was a strong work ethic and a contempt for the poor and vulnerable. Born less than a year apart, we are told the two were “Of the same era / Formed in the war.”
The parts are each played by a pair of actors: Susan Lynskey is “Mags,” the young Thatcher, Kate Fahy is “T,” the elder. Likewise, Beth Hylton plays “Liz,” Anita Carey “Q.” A few more fill out the supporting cast when needed: Ronald Reagan, Rupert Murdoch, and so on. Buffini is clearly anti-Thatcher, and even has one character lovingly recite Neil Kinnock’s “I Warn You” speech from the eve of the ’83 general election. But there is nevertheless an odd nostalgia to Handbagged, a nostalgia for these early days of taking swings at the glass ceiling. Mags benefits from her proximity to Liz: for Buffini, Thatcher is a scholarship kid ever-nursing the bruises sustained from her Oxbridge colleagues.
For many of us, however, she was simply a monster, leaving a legacy of stubborn imperialism, privatization of public services, and weakened trade unions. Though critiques of Thatcher are lobbed through occasional interjections from minor characters, she insists on choosing “what is spoken about here,” and for the most part, Handbagged respects her control over the conversation. Exception is made for strained, half-hearted parallels to Trump (the use of her slogan “make Britain great again” is only the most egregious example of this lazy writing).
Of course, Thatcher must have been a complicated figure, neither the beacon of freedom she remains to the right nor the bloodless goblin she is to the left. “I saw him once,” Horatio says to Hamlet about his father, “He was a goodly king.” “He was a man,” Hamlet replies, “Take him for all in all.” I am, of course, fully willing to watch Thatcher “all in all,” to empathize and perhaps even sympathize with this political boogeyman. Such are the rewards of art. But Handbagged, despite its basis in diligent research, comes up psychologically short, and the result is a muddled, unilluminating, and far too forgiving portrait of the Iron Lady.