An Interview with Emma Cunniffe

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Image © Darren Bell

London Calling spoke to actor Emma Cunniffe about her part in the RSC's West End transfer Queen Anne

Star of stage and screen Emma Cunniffe is donning the mantle of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuarts, who brought about the union of Great Britain and ushered in the age of democracy. After an acclaimed run in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of ‘Queen Anne’ is coming to London’s Haymarket Theatre this summer. We talked to Cunniffe about reprising her role as the eponymous monarch in a tale of political intrigue, friendship, and betrayal that invites certain parallels with the political landscape of today.

London Calling: For those who are unfamiliar with the story of Queen Anne, could you tell us a little about the play?

Emma Cunniffe: Absolutely. The play charts Anne’s reign - it starts with her as a princess and then she becomes queen - and spans the twelve year period when she was reigning as queen; it’s like a coming of age story, really. She grows in confidence through becoming a monarch. Queen Anne had a very close relationship with Sarah Churchill, who was her closest friend from when they were very young. [Sarah] was keeper of the Privy Purse and her greatest confidante. Then, when Anne becomes queen, it quickly becomes apparent that Sarah and Anne have very different outlooks politically, and they fall out over the course of the play. Sarah was very beautiful and popular and confident - a great politician and a really interesting, brilliant woman - and Anne lacked confidence, and adored Sarah. This friendship gets torn apart, and Sarah betrays Anne in a way that is quite cruel.

Image Credit: Romola Garai and Emma Cunniffe, Darren Bell

LC: Did you know much about Anne before accepting the role, or did you have to brush up on your history?

EC: No I didn’t, actually! I knew there had been a Queen Anne but I didn’t know much about her at all, so it was really fascinating to learn about her and read around the subject. There’s a fantastic biography by Edward Gregg on Queen Anne, I read that, and I read a lot of the letters that were exchanged between Sarah and Anne. I also visited Kensington Palace and St James’ Palace - we had a private tour of St James’ Palace which was amazing - and I spoke to quite a few historians there who were really, really brilliant.

It’s a fascinating period in history. It saw the the rise of divided party politics - the Whigs and the Tories began emerging - and the start of democracy. Anne was also responsible for that and the union between Scotland and England (the Act of Union). Before that time Scotland was separate. I didn’t know anything about that at all!

LC: That seems to have some resonance today, given that we might be looking at the dissolution of the union.

EC: Absolutely! It’s really interesting because, exactly like today, some Scottish people wanted independence and others didn’t. Back then, at the time of the Act of Union, the same divide still existed.

Image Credit: Emma Cunniffe as Queen Anne, Darren Bell

LC: A lot has been made of the fact that the two leading roles are female and it explores their relationship, rather than their relationship with men. Do you think this kind of role is still a rarity for women?

EC: Yes, though I think there have definitely been great shifts to give women more roles within the industry. There’s some great stuff on TV with women in strong parts. But sometimes, when it comes to characters of a certain age... there’s a lot of parts for younger women, but maybe not so many for middle-aged women. That’s what’s really great about this play. It’s also great to be playing somebody who is largely forgotten. She’s remembered in some ways, but a lot of people don’t really know about Queen Anne, so that’s really interesting to me - to give her a voice and get her story out. Because she wasn’t really a flashy person, she was quite a quiet - some would say dull - person, and I think that’s interesting because often women’s parts are more flashy, somehow!

LC: You’ve worked extensively in film and TV as well as in theatre. Do you have a preferred medium?

EC: I love it all! I really enjoy television and film - though obviously that’s a different process to theatre. The thing I love about theatre is that you get a thorough rehearsal period, and then you get a chance to keep playing with it, again and again. Often in film and television you do a take and then it’s gone. I find being in a theatre company allows you to bond, and it’s a nice social thing as well. There’s something so immediate that I love about theatre.

Queen Anne will be running at the Haymarket Theatre from June 30 to September 30. Tickets from £15.