There seems to be a trend for all things Spanish Golden Age at the moment with Michael Grandage’s fantastic Don Carlos and the RSC’s Golden Age season both residing in London. The Lunatic Queen, currently playing at Riverside Studios, fits into this category too, being set in 16th century Spain and telling the story of King Ferdinand, Queen Isabella and their ‘unstable’ daughter Juana.
Torben Betts’ play is something of an anomaly. It aspires simultaneously to emulate and parody the style of a ‘Spanish Golden Age’ play whilst also satirising the current political situation. Betts’ aspirations are high, he wants to explore the nature of power, what it means to rule, and it’s no accident that the Monarchy of Spain create wars abroad to keep their subjects' attention away from the situation at home… remind you of anyone? He also takes on notions of education and birth in relation to behaviour and seems to suggest that people aren’t born bad, it’s power that corrupts, whatever your race or religion.
Betts aims high but falls short of his goals, his failure lies in the flabbiness of the writing which meanders purposelessly from point to point, all of his ambitions hidden under scene after scene of camp, frivolous nonsense with moments that verge on pantomime. Things aren’t helped by his insistence on peppering the dialogue liberally with expletives in a puerile attempt to get laughs.
Tim Stark’s production does nothing to disguise these flaws in the text – rather he emblazons them in technicolor across the stage. Betts’ weak characterisation of what should be the central character, Juana, the Lunatic Queen of the title, being exposed through Lucy Gaskell’s performance. The character’s actions and behaviour from scene to scene are totally unconnected, so much so one could be forgiven for thinking the character to be a series of different people. The production doesn’t even attempt to dress this up as a manifestation of Juana’s mental illness. Gaskell does her best and is energetic and enthusiastic with every piece of action or dialogue, however silly, but you feel sorry she didn’t have a stronger or clearer directorial hand to guide her through this minefield of a part.
The same is true for most of the young members of the cast who are fervent but directionless. The exception comes with Pip Donaghy and Siobhan Redmond’s Ferdinand and Isabella. Both exude an authority that is palpable and deal effortlessly with Betts’ erratic dialogue - they slip between his use of modern comic and more classical longhand with an incredible and impressive ease. Redmond is particularly good in the later scenes, and the play suffers badly for her disappearance in the majority of the second half.
The piece's production values are low with an 80s gothic-come-S & M design, a set that the poor actors have difficulty in maneuvering and an irritating techno sound track to link scenes. Add to this that the production is three hours in length and you have, I’m afraid, too many reasons not to make the journey to Hammersmith.