Washington’s Round House Theatre with ‘Handbagged’: Power Tools for Powerful Women

Amy Henderson
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Kate Fahy (Thatcher), Jennifer Mendenhall (Queen Elizabeth) in Round House Theatre production of ‘Handbagged.’

The title of Moira Buffini’s play says it all:  Handbagged is about women, imagery, and the iconic accessory that symbolizes their status and power. The handbag was a power prop much like FDR’s jauntily-poised cigarette or Churchill’s homburg, but uniquely different because it signified power that wasn’t dependent on men.

Handbagged focuses on the interaction of two late-20th century women who played major roles on the international stage. Both Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher have used “handbags” as conspicuous signifiers of their status.

Round House Theatre in Washington presented the American premiere of this 2013 Olivier-winning play as part of the region’s second Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Handbagged is a perfect choice, since playwright Buffini originally wrote it in 2010 as a one act intended for a British festival devoted to “Women, Power and Politics.”

Buffini went on to write Handbagged as a full-scale play that illuminated the interaction of these two powerful women.  She uses the past tense in the title to indicate that two generations will be used to tell the story of Thatcher’s rule as Prime Minister. The play opens with both women as elders (Jennifer Mendenhall as the older Queen, and Kate Fahry as the older Thatcher) looking back at their younger selves during Thatcher’s political reign. To convey how the Queen attempted to temporize the “Iron Lady’s” rigid view of right-and-wrong, two younger women play the Queen and Thatcher during the actual time of Thatcher’s tenure (1979-1990), with Beth Hylton as the younger “Liz” and Susan Lynskey as “Mags.”

Buffini has explained that she was drawn to Thatcher because she had grown up during the Iron Lady’s difficult rule. In Buffini’s youth, she saw Thatcher as a “gigantic figure” whose extreme views branded Britain in the 1980s with transformative change.  Buffini also decided that the Queen would be an important humanizing foil for Thatcher’s brittle character, and organized the play around the weekly meetings the Queen and Prime Minister held over tea. While no one knows what conversations actually occurred over their eleven years of sipping, Buffini wrote her play to allow the audience to “eavesdrop” on what might have been said.  (See Moira Buffini interview in GO London Newsletter online, 4/19/14.)

Left: Left (l to r): Jennifer Mendenhall (older and younger Queen), Beth Hylton, Susan Lynskey, Kate Fahy ((younger and older Thatcher)

The original British creative team has produced this premiere at Round House,  and somehow the script resonates remarkably with current American politics. Lines about “carnage” and the primacy of “our free expression” generated knowing audience reactions, as did the stage Thatcher’s declamation that being tough with striking miners would “make Great Britain great again.”

Because generations have elapsed since Thatcher’s rule, the script has two supporting actors play various roles to help fill in the historical narrative. One actor (John Lescault) enacts such parts as Thatcher’s husband Denis and Ronald Reagan; another actor (Cody Leroy Wilson) plays a catch-all assortment of roles, most memorably a side-splitting caricature of Nancy Reagan.

The play begins as Thatcher attempts “to wean Britain off what she viewed as an overreaching nanny state.” (Round House program notes) Britain is embroiled in violent times, with Thatcher responding forcefully to IRA attacks, social unrest, and the Falkland Islands. She notoriously shuts down British coal mines, privatizes industries, and slashes funding for the National Health Service; she was against forming a European union, and refused to condemn apartheid in South Africa.

Right (l to r): Kate Fahy, John Lescault, Cody LeRoy Wilson, Beth Hylton, Jennifer Mendenhall

The Queen’s focus in the 1980s was family-oriented and centered on Charles’s marriage to Lady Diana Spencer. But she was also willing to step into the political fray, and the Sunday Times reported that she was “dismayed” over Thatcher’s “uncaring” policies over South Africa. Overall, Handbagged portrays the Queen as having a much deeper understanding of the British people than Thatcher’s iron-fisted approach.

By the late 1980s, Thatcher was Britain’s longest-serving Prime Minster of the 20th century, but her time was up: her volatile policies had led to economic upheaval, and her push for a highly-unpopular tax provided the last nail in her political coffin. She was forced from office in November 1990, and died two years later of a stroke.

Handbagged portrays Thatcher as abrasive and lacking compassion, while the Queen is a much more likable character, conveying wit and a good deal more sense about the common good.

Left (l to r): Jennifer Mendenhall (older and younger Queen), Beth Hylton, Susan Lynskey, Kate Fahy ((younger and older Thatcher)

Susan Lynskey (younger Thatcher)

So why is the play called Handbagged? And why did these powerful women cart these accessories with them everywhere?   Thatcher’s bag was made by Ferragamo, and fashion historian Robin Givhan has written that it “became a synecdoche for the woman herself.” The Iron Lady didn’t need to wield a gavel: “She could place her bag on the table to announce her presence,” using it as a swaggering statement of power.(See Robin Givhan, “The Language of Margaret Thatcher’s Handbags,” in The Daily Beast, 4/8/13, online.)

Beth Hylton (younger Queen Elizabeth)

The Queen’s handbag carries a much different symbolism. She has around 200  calfskin bags, and they are all designed by Royal Warrant-holder Launer. While we don’t know what the Queen actually carries in her bags, there is a definite mystique about how she uses them. It has been suggested that she sends coded messages to her staff:  if she places her handbag on the table, it means she would like to wrap things up quickly; if she puts it on the floor, it signals to her lady-in-waiting that she wants to be rescued quickly.  (Marcia Moody, “8 Surprising Things That the Queen Carries in Her Handbag,” Popsugar website.)

Handbagged never reveals the inner secrets of the bags themselves, but uses this accessory common to both women as a way to reveal how their personalities shaped a formative decade in British and world history. The women were born five months apart, but the intransigent “grocer’s daughter” shares little else but her use of a handbag with the Queen, who is now 91 and in the 66th year of her reign. The Iron Lady has been gone for over 25 years and has largely seeped into the fog of history, but her anti-European policies still echo today as the UK trundles towards Brexit.

By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer

HANDBAGGED is by Moira Buffini; directed by Indhu Rubasingham. Closed on March 3rd at Round House Theatre, 240-644-1100; roundhousetheatre.org.

Amy Henderson is Historian Emerita of the National Portrait Gallery

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