Billed as part revenge tragedy and part contemporary political satire, The Lunatic Queen introduces the audience to King Ferdinand (Pip Donaghy), Queen Isabella (Siobhan Redmond) and their increasingly mad daughter Juana (Lucy Gaskell). Opening with a sadistic scene of a black man being whipped by the Spanish king, Betts’ script continues in equally grizzly fashion, taking in sexual abuse, fantasy figures and a comedic appearance by Christopher Colombus.
The Queen is in fading health and is set to be replaced on the throne by her daughter. Despite the girl’s mental state, the monarchy – and its Christian hegemony – must be preserved. Thus it is that the girl is married off to the fey Philip the Fair of Belgium (Stephen Kennedy) – but as her mind unravels, the monarchy’s carefully laid plans begin to disintegrate and the protagonists enter uncharted personal and courtly territory.
It’s a compelling story, both a study in madness and a recounting of intrigue in the royal household. But unfortunately director Tim Spark and Betts’ script conspire to make for a mediocre evening.
The cast, particularly Stephen Kennedy in an unrewarding role as Philip, do their best with Betts’ problematic, fractured narrative of classical longhand and contemporary expletives that seems to draw inspiration equally from Lorca and Sarah Kane.
But a superfluous political message, utterly lacking in subtlety, only adds to a pervading sense of bemusement. Likening the Spanish monarchy’s Christian crusading tendencies to our present world’s imperialist issues seems strained and gratuitous – the point would be made with a simpler directorial focus on letting events of the 16th century play out on their own, in turn allowing the audience make the connection to contemporary issues. Hammy event manipulation for contemporary political purposes does little but grate, and hinders further the already difficult narrative.
The production is hardly assisted by an outlandish monstrosity of a set. This multi-layered construct of cherubs, what at first glance seems to be an eye and a grid of bars does at least give the cast chances to occupy plenty of the theatre’s considerable space, and the grid, variously used as a masochistic bed, a cell wall and a ladder, is inventive. But it seems invention for invention’s sake rather than being particularly complementary to the script or direction.
The flabby script conspires with a maddening pseudo-techno soundtrack to make a show that, at three hours, lasts far too long and, despite some interesting themes and individually good performances, regrettably rewards far too little.