I, Elizabeth – coming to Assembly Roxy for the Edinburgh Fringe – was penned by Rebecca Vaughan and originally produced by her and her production partner, Elton Townend Jones, in 2010. A one-woman play about the young Queen Elizabeth I, set at a pivotal moment in her life, this is one of several quality solo shows and two-handers that the duo’s company, Dyad Productions, has either out on tour, or ready to set out at the drop of a hat. Their writing is original, their track record solid, and their reviews appended to multiple golden stars. As the leading lady of this particular firmament, Rebecca Vaughan is writer, producer and actress – and a jolly nice person, to boot. Our The Wee Review theatre reviewer, Laura Ingram, set out to learn how she does it.
You were obviously very inspired by the life and character of Elizabeth I, but what triggered the decision to write a play about her?
It was sort of an accident. This was the second show that I’d written, the first being Austen’s Women, which featured 14 characters from Jane Austen’s work. With that, I’d been interested in creating a whole narrative arc which gave these women a voice using Austen’s own (wanting to reveal just how brilliantly witty and satirical she is), but without being just another chick-lit take on her work. The play went down so well with audiences and I fell in love with the solo show genre, and I started to look for another subject for my next play.
I was on my hands and knees looking for a book on the library shelves, when a book entitled Elizabeth I: Collected Works jumped out at me. As Elizabeth I is not generally known as an author or a poet, my first reaction was surprise, then excitement.
I’d learned the standard history about Elizabeth at school, and had always been fascinated by her, even as a young girl. Then, the more I learned about her, the more interesting I realised she was, and the more I wanted to learn. I took this book home and found it to be a collection of speeches, letters, prayers and poems, all by her own hand. I was astonished at how much Elizabeth had actually written down during her lifetime and, through hearing her own voice, I fell completely in love with her.
We have this idea in our culture of the older Elizabeth, as “Gloriana”, but what was interesting to me was the younger woman who hadn’t yet found that calm and strength, who hadn’t quite yet become that queen. The more research I did on her at this time in her life, the more I wanted to show her to the world in her own words; a warts-and-all history of how she became that “Gloriana”. The initial inspiration for the play, though, was a beautiful accident.
The subject matter must have necessitated a lot of research. What were the key records that informed your theme or plot, and where/how did you encounter them? Was there one source in particular that inspired you?
My first port of call was obviously Elizabeth I: Collected Works, but there was so much reading material out there about her, that I decided early on to restrict my research to two particular avenues: 1) all the primary sources of the period that I could find (which included research at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and at the British Library), and 2) a large selection of biographies (about fifteen) of Elizabeth many of which also included tidbits that had themselves been gleaned from primary source material.
One of your reviewers described this particular type of theatre generically as “historical ventriloquism”, as if the play is channelled soliloquy, rather than a structured monologue. Did you encounter any particular difficulties in crafting the material into a dramatic script with conflict and a narrative arc, given that it is a solo piece?
I, Elizabeth is different to some plays about historical characters in that every single word in it is actually Elizabeth’s own. I was very interested in the creative arc of a “what if?” scenario. Around 1568, there seems to have been something that happened to Elizabeth that fundamentally changed her. It was the year that everything started to go wrong for her, in terms of being strongly petitioned by the Commons and Lords to marry and produce an heir, in terms of religious troubles brewing both in France, and in the north of England, and in terms of the erratic (and potentially illegal) behaviour of her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. We’ll never know exactly what happened, and there is no documented reference at all to any specific event or change of heart, but she changed so much in this short period, and carried so much weight on her shoulders with no-one she could truly confide in (everyone had an agenda). I felt compelled to hypothesise a scenario in which she is given the time and space to commune with an audience, who will listen to her with no agenda of their own, and let her release and share her burdens. This, in my play, is the experience which fundamentally changes her.
The conflict comes in the first instance from Elizabeth finding herself out of her own time, with only a limited duration in which to unburden herself. For a woman who was so much in control, it was important for something major in the play’s dynamic to be out of her control. She doesn’t know exactly how long she’s got, but she has this sense of urgency, of having to get it all out before her time runs out. This “out of time” element also adds an aspect of magical realism, which I’ve long been interested in, but which works especially well here against the foil of such strict historical fact.
I guess the “ventriloquism” comment came from the fact that I was using Elizabeth’s own voice – literally, her own words – but these were carefully chosen and arranged in order to create a dramatic piece with a full narrative arc.
As a solo piece, there are no other characters to ‘bounce off’ and who can provide a regular stream of conflict to maintain the dramatic impetus of the play. One solution is to actively cast the audience in this role. How does Elizabeth interact with her audience during the play? Have you given them an identity in Elizabeth’s world, i.e. courtiers or peasants, or are they more like witnesses to the inner workings of her mind?
Elizabeth absolutely talks to the audience. She’s always talking to them. The most important thing in a solo show is that there is no fourth wall. She sometimes asks them direct questions, and I have the wonderful freedom to wait and see if they will respond. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t – sometimes they’re a bit scared of her (Elizabeth) – especially if she’s just been in a towering rage a few moments before – but the audience are themselves a key character in the play, and it’s very important for Elizabeth to have them there to react against. They should feel a part of it all.
Another reviewer called I, Elizabeth “A definite must-see for history and theatre addicts.” In bringing an historical character to life, there is a balance to be found between recorded fact and poetic licence / emotional truth. Were there any aspects of Elizabeth’s life that you had to bend a little or outright change/ignore in order to streamline the play’s narrative?
I, Elizabeth is slightly different to other shows as I made the decision very early on not to invent anything. Instead, I would be a kind of investigator and join the dots, making the most sense of the existing material that I could. One of the interesting aspects of this was interpreting Elizabeth’s emotional truth from the factual records. I wanted to show her in all her aspects, both likeable and unlikeable. I love that one minute, the audience is in love with her, and the next, they dislike her, or even perhaps that they’re scared of her, or the power that she wields. It was very important to me to show a complex woman, but I didn’t want to bend the truth to do this, as my own personal remit was to reveal as much about the truth of Elizabeth as possible.
This made a rod for my back in some ways, as Elizabeth’s own words were of course written in the language of her period, which can take a few moments for the audience to adjust to before they “get their ear in”, as such – much like a Shakespeare play. Having said this, I believe that we shouldn’t be afraid of challenging the audience, that it needs to be a two-way process, i.e. that they should put some work into the experience too, in order to be invested in it. This performance is, in many ways, the closest people will come to seeing Elizabeth the person, because they are listening to her words, and with all her meaning, and emotion behind them. And when she gets angry, boy does she get angry, and when she’s upset, she’s really upset.
You’re both the writer and performer of I, Elizabeth. How does knowing you will be performing the words you type affect the writing process for you? Are you able to separate the two aspects of your work?
I very much separate them. I’ve just written my fourth play (seven in total as a team) [with her Dyad Productions co-producer, Elton Townend Jones], and I’ve got to the point now where I’m very good at (and enjoy) separating them. Certainly, I can use my knowledge as a performer as to what would sound right onstage, but I don’t think of the character I’m writing as “me” – I’m very much the writer and editor of the play at that stage.
When it gets to the rehearsal room, it’s important not to be too precious about the script, and to be open to being inspired by the director [I, Elizabeth was directed by Edinburgh Fringe stalwart, Guy Masterson]. There’s a period in between the writing and rehearsing stages when I haven’t looked at the script for a while, and this helps me to come back to it the second time as an actor, rather than the writer. Having said that, I’ve done all that research as the writer, so I can use that in my acting, too. Similarly, the time lapse between performances of the play can help me to bring something fresh to it each time we revisit it. Time changes you as a person, so you must necessarily see something in the script that you didn’t see before – even as the writer.
As if you weren’t busy enough, you’re also one of the play’s producers! I imagine you deliberately avoid complicated props and expensive sets, but there will be other factors in your mind as you write, such as how easily the play will tour, how long it needs to be to fit a venue slot, how large an audience is appropriate for the piece, etc. Are you aware of these factors during the initial writing phase, or are these practical considerations things that you deal with separately, with a non-creative hat on?
I really enjoy all the elements of production. [Elton and I] specialise in solo shows and two-handers, and see ourselves very much as theatre-makers in a holistic sense, not just interested in one specific aspect of production, but in creating one whole piece of magic. This is why we want to work on this scale, so that we can be a part of all the production aspects. Therefore, we certainly do look at all the producorial elements from the early stages, but we know the areas in which money is well spent.
We see the Edinburgh Fringe, in many ways, as a trade fair. It’s a useful way to get venue managers to come and see our plays which will hopefully facilitate a tour. We absolutely think about sets, etc., and we believe that production values are very important – the audience needs to have things to look at (lighting design, costume design, soundscape, etc.). In the case of I, Elizabeth, our set is a realistic / slightly magical hybrid that is emblematic of the tone of the play itself.
You first staged I, Elizabeth in 2010. How is it going in terms of revisiting the work after five years? Did you feel the need to revise the script at all? Did you bring anything different to your approach this time round? What are your hopes for the play’s future life beyond the Edinburgh Fringe this summer?
We haven’t just let the play be for five years. The show has toured a few times since 2011, including a brief tour last spring. We always find things we want to tweak when we revisit it; little cuts, costume adjustments. We do those things naturally on a production, we never stop, because we’re always looking to make it better, and to learn, not just trot it out year after year. And we always do learn something, every time we do a tour. There may come a time when we take the play apart completely and put it back together again – with a different actor, for example. It’s important to keep our plays alive because we’re keen to focus on continually touring our various productions. There is an astonishing network of regional theatres in the UK touring arts scene, we’re very lucky. If audiences like one of our shows, and if we have a stable of different plays all fresh and ready to go on the road, we might get requests from venue managers to stage some of those, too. We’ve deliberately created pieces of work that we can tour whenever we wish, and this means that we can be a small-scale, unfunded theatre company, and make it work.
And from an acting point of view, in terms of learning lines, once they’re in, they’re in, but whenever I come back to a show, I deliberately come to it as fresh as possible. I’ll sit alone quietly on the sofa and read the script to myself, and new things will come to me. Then we’ll do a pick-up rehearsal with the director to make sure the show is back on track, but there’s nothing like getting a show in front of an audience for seeing what works and what doesn’t. Even current affairs in the news can affect how a play is received at any given time – especially with a show which is so political – even Tudor politics can have huge parallels with current affairs.
As to the future life of the play, we hope to continue to tour the piece. At the end of the day, if the audiences love it, that’s really all that matters. I feel very honoured and blessed to be able to do this for a living.