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Handbagged: if this is what luvvies think being ‘fair’ to Thatcher is, I’d like to see their idea of ‘unfair’

12 April 2014

11:19 AM

12 April 2014

11:19 AM

Why do the Left love the Queen? Sure, most of us agree she’s done an excellent job in a difficult role, only screwing up a few major life decisions: tricksy choice of husband, wintry education of her children, fastidious attitude to peanuts. But as one of the country’s richest women, a symbol of economic equality she ain’t.  So it’s a mark of just how willfully hostile theatreland is to Margaret Thatcher that in Moira Buffini’s new play about the two, Handbagged, it’s the Queen, not the grocer’s daughter, who emerges as the courageous voice of social justice. It’s a frustrating blindspot in an otherwise witty, watchable production, anchored by consummate performances from Marion Bailey and Fenella Woolgar.

Buffini has a sinuous grasp of the problems and possibilities of staging history – in a canny move, Maggie and the Queen are each played by two actresses simultaneously, allowing each to question her own memory and motives in dialogue with herself rather than potentially interminable soliloquy. Four actresses on stage to play two women. The script describes this as dialogue between older and younger versions of each woman, but Buffini has actually pulled off something far more subtle: in naming the first pair: ‘Q’ and ‘T’ (Marion Bailey and Stella Gonet), all intimacies effaced, the playwright stages the familiar public incarnation of each icon, while as ‘Liz’ and ‘Mags’, Lucy Robinson and Fenella Woolar are left to surprise us with flashes of intimacy.

Thus Lucy Robinson’s ‘Liz’ giggles over the 1979 election: ‘Philip and I had put money on the result’, whereupon Marion Bailey’s more regal ‘Q’ instantly shuts her down: ‘No, we did not!’ It’s a smart ploy to allow the playwright to maintain continual deniability about her flights of fantasy  – we’re constantly teased with spectacular blowouts between the two, only for the official version of events to reassert itself. And it’s an apt figuration for the way historical truth flirts with and evades the historian.


Fenella Woolgar is one of our great underrated actresses, and as ‘Mags’, she radiates charisma. But unlike Lucy Robinson’s textured ‘Liz’, she’s essentially a mimic, channeling Thatcher’s most grating, patronising smiles, and showing little in the way of human vulnerability or variety. Sure, Thatcher was rigidly convinced of her own righteousness at even the toughest of times, but did she really always seek to cajole, rather than persuade? When asked if she ever listens, Woolgar’s Thatcher replies, ‘when one knows one is right, that is very hard’. The press night audience howled with laughter. But while Maggie always had the courage of her convictions, even her enemies should acknowledge that it was only with a dose of Machiavellian adaptability that she got through the long selection battles before Finchley, and the junior ranks of government. The tin ear to social dynamics only developed after too many years in government.

Where Margaret Thatcher was unwavering was in her opposition to socialism, at home and abroad. And it’s in its mockery of this constancy that Handbagged truly reveals its prejudices. ‘What we have now’, intones Gonet’s Thatcher at the start of her rule, ‘is a failed socialist experiment’. Indeed – how else could one describe striking NHS workers picketing patients at their own hospitals in the Winter of Discontent? If Communism looks an absurd idea in the UK today, that’s because Margaret Thatcher won the battle of ideas. But for Buffini, this is just an excuse for the Queen to sigh about Thatcher’s tendency to lecture, and Gonet to prove her right by launching into a lengthy drone about freedom. (Although I did love Thatcher trying to get the Queen to read The Road to Serfdom). 

Meanwhile the Queen bleats about rising world inequality in tricola she’s picked up from Indira Ghandi – little matter that, as Laurence Chandy and Geoffrey Gertz of the Brookings Institution recently demonstrated, half a billion people were lifted out of poverty between Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power and 2005, and thanks to the spread of global capitalism, the same number again have escaped in the decade since. Some moral victory for the opponents of world socialism.

But blinkered as it is, Handbagged is funny. And Indhu Rubasingham’s production, like so much of her work at The Tricycle theatre, is impeccably executed. Two put-upon males, Neet Mohan and Jeff Rawle, play all the hapless supporting-blokes deliciously between them: from Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda to Geoffrey Howe (I counted 17 quick changes, but it could be more). And Buffini shows she has at least a grasp of history in her focus on the Queen’s instinctive understanding of the Commonwealth – an early sequence about her efforts to nurture talks on the future of Zimbabwe is shrewd and enlightening.

Unlike The Audience, however, this isn’t a play about the monarchy. Buffini is more interested in the two women’s leadership – despite the recent juggernaut of The Audience, Handbagged has been in development since The Tricycle’s 2010 Women, Politics and Power season. But while theirs was certainly a stormy relationship, the Queen’s concerns about Thatcherism were, if anything, the instinctive conservatism of a High Tory confronted by a Whig radical, hardly the rebellion of a soft-left conscience. Buffini told Women’s Hour yesterday that she felt she’d achieved the impossible, ‘writing a fair play about Thatcher’. Given that she spent the days after Thatcher’s funeral, by her own admission, trying to explain to her children why reasonable people could disagree about celebrating the woman’s death, one shudders to imagine what her unfair version might have been like.

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Show comments
  • MikeF

    “Buffini told Women’s Hour yesterday that she felt she’d achieved the impossible, ‘writing a fair play about Thatcher’.” Indeed – one of the hallmark traits of the left is their propensity for self-estimation, so no surprise there except perhaps for the fact that she was not priding herself on being overtly partisan. The basic fact is that that even now the left cannot really reconcile themselves to the fact that Margaret Thatcher ever happened and can do nothing except construct fantasies about what they think she ought to have been and then try to pass them off as impartial analysis. Oh and where else would she get a more credulous and uncritical platform than Woman’s Hour?

    • Kaine

      Thatcher failed upon her own bases. She sought a return to a set of Edwardian social values and self reliance, and thought that withdrawal by the state would achieve that. It did not. It merely removed the last remaining supports of that communitarian ideal. We ended up with a courser, greedier, more atomised public life and discourse. The social advances that were made, in terms of acceptance of previously excluded groups, were directly contrary to what she wanted.

      If the usual suspects want to disagree with me, I would appreciate a counter-argument rather than just the rather worn epithets.

      • MikeF

        What ‘social groups’ are those? Margaret Thatcher thought in terms of the economy and not much else – she was actually quite free of personal prejudices. Cite one instance of where she expressed a wish for some ‘excluded’ group in society to remain that way. As for the ‘atomisation’ of society we have had a lot more of that since she left office than during it.

        • Kaine

          I agree there has been further atomisation since 1990, that’s exactly my point, her revolution failed on the terms she set.

          Here’s your one instance

          And she passed Section 28 to back up her prejudice in law.

          • MikeF

            Fair enough – though I don’t think Mrs Thatcher or the Conservative Party ever advocated that people should be demoted in their jobs – like that housing association employee a year of so back – or even arrested and bunged in a police cell for 15 hours – like that evangelical preacher just a few weeks ago – for simply expressing an opinion on ‘gay’ issues. As for the ‘atomisation’ that has followed Mrs Thatcher that is the quite deliberate result of policies intended to create it brought in by the government of a different party for different reasons – it is nothing to do with her or her policies.

  • justejudexultionis

    What makes you think that all of us on ‘the left’ love the queen. I certainly don’t.

    • judyk113

      Yes, of course. Let’s by all means have people like the multi-millionaire Baron John Prescott or the multi-millionaire Baron Neil Kinnock as head of state. The masses will turn out to vote for them in their millions.

      • Kaine

        The Irish seem to rather like Michael D Higgins.

        • Nkaplan

          Good for them – and the British seem to like their Queen. Can we end the discussion there then?

          • Kaine

            She wouldn’t have any problem winning an election then would she?

            • RobertC

              The whole point of having a monarch is that it is not negotiable, and there is no political manifesto!

              • Kaine

                Really? True, Lizzy has been rather apolitical but a number of her forbears have been rather intrusive, and her descendants may well be again. Also, which of several claimants actually got the throne has always had a negotiated element.

        • terence patrick hewett

          The Irish are both singular and lucky that they have a whole raft of really lovely people: the Brits?

          • Kaine

            Our really lovely people don’t tend to go into politics. Maybe it should come bundled with the poet laureate position.

  • ohforheavensake

    Good play to put on, now we’re at the end of a failed Thatcherite experiment.

  • DavEd CamerBand

    The term “left-wing” was originally denoting anti-monarchy (republicans), today it stands for “good intentioned politics” mainly because any story, for example one on the telegraph yesterday, whereby a white extremist is mentioned , (in this case a 19 year old had liked a page called “no more mosques”) they are described as “right-wing” which is incorrect; unless your bigoted assumption is underpinned by a religion being a race. Left-wing would have been more apt, but instead you transpose the meaning so much we lose track of the definition. But the consensus you’ve engineered is “right- wing synonymous with evil”

    Well done

    • Kaine

      Conservatives don’t need any help to make people think they’re nasty.

      • Cyril Sneer

        No, well we wouldn’t expect people to think, certainly not lefties anyway.

        Hence the lefty generated class war – tory is apparently greedy, hate the poor whilst labour is rob from the rich to give to the poor. Sadly that doesn’t match reality (it never does in lefty world).

        The lefts argument really is that infantile and simple. It taps into your tribal blame the rich mentality and it absolves you of any critical thought.

        • Kaine

          The Left started the class war only in the sense that it urged people to start fighting back. Before then true it hadn’t been a war, it had been an occupation punctuated with massacres.

      • Realpolitik

        meanwhile the great labour party are so nice:

        1. they start taxing at £6,500…….. compared to the coalition’s £10,500..if they represented the working man why tax low-paid workers so harshly forcing them onto benefits as they are better off on them?????)

        2. they didn’t regulate the banks in 13 years. (Blair now a banker worth upwards of 60 MILLION- and he started the new labour movement…..) Google “Peter Mandelson on yacht with Nat Rothschild” “Google Brown at Bilderberg” etc.

        3. more tax has been paid by top earners EVERY year under the coalition than ANY under labour.

        4. They want to increase debt BY £3,200 per person

        5. spend 11.6% more than they take in tax.

        6. they destroyed our economy. Labour presided over the slowest growth in 50 years, they produced the fastest decline in British manufacturing since manufacturing began, they left us mired in the longest recession since the war, they bequeathed maybe the largest deficit in peacetime history, and they handed over a debt so huge we will still be repaying it when the earth is swallowed by an expanding sun, a cosmological termination which might therefore come as some relief.

        7. they want to continue to send 57million a day to the EU

        8. they want higher immigration (last time allowed the biggest mass immigration into the United Kingdom in our nation’s history: three million people, possibly more than entered these island in the preceding 1,000 years combined.)

        9. they have destroyed the NHS in Wales (where they are currently in power, why wouldn’t they do it here too?????- the coalition have ring-fenced our NHS budget so they CAN’T cut it, but labour will.) Our last labour government blew £250,000,000 on private surgery because their NHS was so bad1,200 died in Mid-Staffordshire Hospital alone, that’s more than died in Mid-Staffordshire during the Black Death.
        along with their gagging orders on whistle blowers within the NHS

        10. they raid the pensions.

        11. Iraq+Afghanistan.

        12.They sold off 400 tons of UK gold reserves and invested the money elsewhere (including in euros, compare the change in the value of gold to the change in the value of the euro in recent years if you have some free time).

        13. run by the unions

        14. They bloated the welfare budget.

        15. They didn’t keep up with house building when demand rocketed, allowing house prices to triple

        16. They failed to build a lot of necessary infrastructure such as power stations.

        17. they didn’t invest in infrastructure (despite borrowing 1 trillion and taking 13 years of tax) Well, yes: they built the Millennium Dome. It’s easy to forget the Millennium Dome, because, after all, who would want to remember it, but this thing burned up 800 million pounds, was maybe the greatest marketing flop in recorded time, and it turned out to be a great big dirty tent where queueing families could pay £60, just to look at uplifting representations of litter.

        18. They continually increased fuel duty by over 107%, harming motorists.

        19. They signed the Lisbon treaty, giving vast amounts of power to the EU and going against their own manifesto in with they specifically said they would give the people a referendum.

        20. Allowing rich people to buy peerages.

        21. Started HS2

        22. They left us with the largest budget deficit in the G20 relative to GDP.

        23.They lumbered the NHS with vast PFI repayments which are coming out of Foundation trusts and straight into the pockets of the private sector. £50 Billion’s worth of loans which are costing us £300 Billion in repayments-genius!…….

        24. Housing waiting lists DOUBLED under Labour

        25. Europe. labour’s biggest achievement in Europe was to give away half our precious rebate, won by Thatcher, at a cost to you and me of £9 billion so far – and in return they got precisely nothing, unless you count a chortling, after-dinner promise from Jacques Chirac, that he’d make Tony Blair President of the EU, which he didn’t. A small mercy.

        26. Education. ensuring English youngsters are amongst the worst educated in the western world, and closing the grammar schools preventing the poor from achieving.

        27. giving everyones personal information to america “labour MP wants muslim prime minister”

        29. they can’t even run their party finances ( lost 2 million recently in banking)

        30. The party is almost identical to the previous labour government who got us in to this mess (ed balls).

        31. Google “labour25”

        32. Medi Hassan wrote Miliband’s biography is a militant muslim who described westerners as animals (a video you can find on here)

        33. The espouse the same political policies and views as the French President Hollande which is destroying France, where the rich have left youth unemployment is at 25% and they have seen the largest drop in investment for over 60 years.

        34. 5 Labour MPs—and no Tories or Lib Dems—have been found guilty of expenses fraud by a court and sent to prison. Ed Balls claimed £33 parliamentary expenses for poppy wreaths he had laid at his constituency ceremony.

        35. Diane Abbott, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, etc.

        As for the Labour Party right now, they’ve opposed every cut that aims to tackle the deficit their party created and are not offering a plan of what they would do differently. Apart from keeping all the cuts (which they are opposed to)

        • Kaine

          Just because you put your mish-mash rants in a list it doesn’t make them plausible or readable. To take a couple of examples from the wreckage, HS2 was, and remains, a cross party project, but it’s being implemented by the Coalition. The gold sell-off lost far less money than Geoffrey Howe’s hesitation, and was more than made up for by the very shrewd dealings on the 3G band. As for the nonsense trade union stuff, you can’t simultaneously say that Labour’s politicians are out of touch elitists, and that they’re the vanguard of the proletarian hordes.

          Your weird thing about Mehdi and Diane Abbot I assume is simply an attempt to tick all three ‘fruit cakes, loonies and closet racists’ boxes.

          One final point, the Blessed Margaret closed down the most grammar schools.