ARTS AND FEATURES — 30 April 2014

Marian Bailey and Stella Gonet in their respective roles of The Queen and Margaret Thatcher

By David Hennessy

“It would have been unthinkable in the days of Thatcher which I think were the darkest days really,” playwright Moira Buffini says of the recent state visit that saw President Michael D Higgins become the first Irish head of state to be officially welcomed to the UK.

After a successful stint at The Tricycle Theatre last year, Buffini’s play Handbagged, which takes a look at the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and The Queen during the former’s years in power, is currently playing in the West End.

The Carlisle- born playwright continues: “That’s down to Thatcher’s inability to compromise. I think huge compromises have been made in the Northern Ireland peace process and that really is what has brought peace to that part of the world. She regarded it as a weakness to compromise and I think that was one of her great problems as a leader, not just in Northern Ireland but everywhere. There’s that famous quote of hers: “That is out, that is out, that is out”, that she said about every possibility of compromise in Northern Ireland, she just wasn’t having any of it. It was just meet violence with violence all the way with Thatcher and an awful lot of people died as a result.”

Republicans wanted Margaret Thatcher dead after what they saw as cold treatment of the hunger strikers, and came close with the Brighton bomb of 1984, and unionists also distrusted her after the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.

Handbagged began as a short piece Buffini wrote for The Tricycle’s Women, Power and Politics season in 2010 before being developed into the full length play that returned to the Kilburn playhouse last October.

Moira is known for plays such as Jordan, Gabriel and Silence which earned her the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for best English-language play by a woman in 1999. Her Dinner was nominated for an Olivier Award.

Playwright Moira Buffini

She has also written for the screen, including an adaptation of her play A Vampire Story which, entitled Byzantium, was directed by Neil Jordan and starred Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan.

Thatcher came to power in 1979 after what was called The Winter of Discontent that saw thousands of public workers strike. It was in 1980 that she made her famous “the lady’s not for turning” speech after party MPs warned that her economic policy was responsible for rising unemployment that had soared to over 3 million for the first time since the 1930s by 1982. Steel workers and miners both went on strike over closures and the race riots in Birmingham were partlyblamed on the economic deprivation.

In 1990 Thatcher was ousted from the leadership of the Conservative Party and resigned from number 10.

Moira was a young teenager when Thatcher came to power and teaching drama in Holloway prison in 1990 and like most who grew up in that time, feels somewhat shaped by Thatcher.

Has Buffini’s opinion of The Iron Lady changed from her researching and writing about her? “It’s very difficult to say so, coming from a position where I hated her so much. I still hate pretty much everything she did politically and stood for, and I still can’t bare to see the way this government is continuing her policies covertly, attacking all our public services and so on.

“But in terms of her as a human personality, I won’t be thinking of her as a monster. I do not want to say: ‘Suddenly, I think Margaret Thatcher’s great..’ Because I don’t but I would go as far now as admitting she was actually a human being. That’s my shift, shall we say.”

The Queen is played by Lucy Robinson and Marion Bailey while Stella Gonet and Fenella Woolgar play the iron lady. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Moira’s father from Artane in Dublin was a quantity surveyor but died when she was only four. Her mother, a nurse from near Letterkenny in Donegal, raised Moira and her sisters: “My mum voted for her in ‘79, I think my mum was really chuffed that this woman had got there but she was then very disillusioned over the next 11 years. In the 80s, I was a student and I just thought what she was doing was unbearable. What deeply upset me was her aggressive stance on nuclear weapons and her treatment of the miners deeply profoundly upset me.”

The most commonly used phrase to describe her in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s death this time last year was “divisive” and Buffini was moved to write Handbagged in order to explain Thatcher to her children who were too young to remember her and horrified to see people delight in the death of an old woman who near the end suffered dementia, like Moira’s own mother.

How have her children reacted to the play? “They really love the play and I think it’s made them ask questions about politics in a way that they just hadn’t been urged. Most of the kids I know who have been to see this play have absolutely loved it because it’s accessible and it’s funny and it’s very political in a way that isn’t dry and boring and tedious. I think it’s opened up the world of politics and you can start to explain things like what does right wing and what does left wing mean, what is, what was socialism?

“Politics is basically a world of characters which I don’t think they had grasped. It’s not just theories and ideas, politics has always been everywhere a world of characters and a play of power between people and I have always found it fascinating for that and I think because it’s sort of opened up the world of it to my kids, I hope in a way that makes them realise that they have something to do with it and that they have some sort of power.

“I think there are two groups of people that you’re never going to please with this play. The people who adored Thatcher, absolutely adored her, for whom she was a heroine who could do no wrong: you’re never going to please them, and there were those for whom she was the wicked witch and I think they regard it as a betrayal even that I’ve written this play. That there is a play about her and that any attempt to write about her is a glorification and therefore shouldn’t be done. I don’t think you’re ever going to please those people either.

Thatcher and former Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement that made Thatcher unpopular with unionists as well as republicans

“And we have had a couple of quite strong reactions but nobody really knows a lot about her relationship with the queen and it’s just such an unusual way to look at those years and to look at her that I think people, whatever their preconceptions about Thatcher, are surprised by the content of the play and by that relationship with Queen Elizabeth.”

New details are always coming to light under the 30-year rule such as that Margaret Thatcher used to frequently cancel meetings with the queen: “Margaret actually couldn’t bare Balmoral and one of the things she found most distressing about it was to see the queen behaving as a normal person, going out hunting, doing the washing up and so on, just getting in there with the dirty dishes like everybody else and here was one Christmas Margaret Thatcher sent Queen Elizabeth out a Christmas present, a pair of rubber gloves. I just thought as a little bit of detail, that was just really telling about both of those women and their relationship.

“Thatcher revered the queen so much on one hand and yet on the other hand, she would cancel an audience to talk to a bunch of Swedish industrialists. She regarded the queen politically as really unimportant but I think metaphorically in terms of what the queen stood for, in terms of Britannia and all this kind of stuff, she absolutely revered her so it’s a very complicated, complex relationship I think.”

The Queen meets Martin McGuinness and Northern Ireland First Minister Peer Robinson during the recent state visit

On the queen, Moira says: “I think she’s an intensely private person. She’s much more of a political animal than I ever took her for. I come from an Irish family, my Irish cousins are always saying to me ‘you’re a subject, we’re citizens’, and I always thought: ‘Why am I a subject? What is all this royal family stuff about?’ I found it quite bizarre growing up in a country where everyone was so in love with the royal family but actually after all this research, I can really truly say I have got a lot of respect for the queen, I really do have. As for the monarchy and the institution, I have a question mark over it, but I think the queen is extraordinary and has carried herself through decades of history in a very dignified manner.”

The timing of the play’s current run is apt with the message of the state visit seeming to be on moving forward but without forgetting our history: “I think it’s very important that we don’t forget or else you see a country making the same mistakes all over again. It’s like our current property boom in London, we saw this in 1987, called the Lawson Boom, they created this fake boom and then lo and behold when they had won the next election, there’s a big crash and everybody’s houses crashed in value. You just don’t know, you think: ‘Are we making the same mistake twice?’ Is this how badly the Tories want to get re-elected? That they’ll make you think there’s an economic upturn when there isn’t really. Who knows? That’s why history is interesting and that’s why it’s never a waste of time reading it.”

While it is clear she is still no fan of Thatcher, Moira appreciates her honesty, something she sees lacking in the government of today: “I think they hold similar views of small government shall we say which really means in this day and age government by bank and corporation not by people. One of the things I do admire about Thatcher was that she was out there with her combativeness, it was a battle, and with these guys, it’s kind of touchy feely sort of covert taking away the NHS piecemeal so you don’t notice. But that’s been said more eloquently by many other people, I’m just a member of the public with similar views.”

Moira is also writing The Zone for Rufus Norris’ first season as artistic director of The National Theatre next year.

Handbagged is at the Vaudeville Theatre, London until August 2. For more information, go to: handbaggedtheplay.com

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