Director Cal Beckett introduces our next production, Swive (Elizabeth) by Ella Hickson.
Swive (Elizabeth) was first performed only in 2019, so it’s very new! What made you want to direct it so soon after its debut at Shakespeare’s Globe?
I was browsing in the National Theatre bookshop one weekend in early 2020, came across the script and was immediately grabbed by the opening lines: “My mother seduced a man so successfully that he altered the constitutional history of the country”. I just had to take time to read the play properly, so I went to the cash desk to pay for it and the assistant said to me “You know this is still playing at the Globe down the road? Why don’t you go and see if you can get a return?” So I did, got a return that came in just as I was talking to the box office clerk (it was meant to be!) and went to a matinee in the candlelit Sam Wanamaker playhouse.
The pace of the play and modernity of the dialogue really appealed to me (although if you’re wondering what Swive means, it’s an archaic version of the f-word!) – there are no ponderous historical monologues, although a few of Elizabeth’s alleged quotes are used. I had already lined up a play to submit for the second half of 2020, but I decided to submit Swive as an alternative. The then Theatre Committee selected it, but we all know what happened in March 2020; so I’m so delighted to have had the chance to direct the play after a lengthy wait. I’m quite sure that in future, more companies will pick up this play, because it doesn’t require an elaborate set or complex staging – but I’m happy to think that we’re probably putting on its amateur premiere.
Elizabeth I lived over 400 years ago; what do you think it is about her story that makes her still relevant today?
I need to emphasise that this isn’t a historical play in the strictest sense. To quote the writer, Ella Hickson, the play “aims to throw light on contemporary issues by looking through a historical prism.” She encourages “future productions to engage with the work as a new play rather than a history play”. Elizabeth, like many women in power, had to negotiate patriarchal pressure in order to fulfil her role in the way she wanted and “rule by counsel, not be ruled by councillors” (to quote historian David Starkey).
The Tudor age was a succession nightmare, and Elizabeth lived in constant fear of plots against her as well as being under constant pressure to marry and produce an heir. For her, the idea of marrying a foreign suitor threatened her absolute sovereignty – she didn’t wish to share her throne with a foreign king or nobleman as her half sister Mary had done, and if she married an Englishman, she would be marrying someone inferior in status and unlikely to be a choice favoured by all factions. In the play, we see how Elizabeth rebels at the notion that marriage brings security for a woman, and instead is wedded to her country and her role.
What has been the biggest challenge in directing this show?
Honestly? Fracturing my shoulder the night before my auditions, having to rearrange them and then having to decide on my cast from all the talented people who came along! And I’m lucky to have Lisa Thomas as my Assistant Director, because she’s taking care of the detail on costumes – would that we had a bigger budget! Accordingly, what you’ll see is a nod towards Elizabethan style, rather than the full farthingale.
What’s been your favourite aspect of directing it?
The cast (a perfect combination of half new and half existing members) have been an absolute joy to work with – we’ve had an awful lot of fun, and it’s been incredibly collaborative. All but one of the characters in the play were real people, so we’ve enjoyed sharing their stories and exploring their motivations. We can’t wait to bring them to life on stage. I’ve also become just a little bit obsessed with Elizabeth and her contemporaries – next stop I think will be the TV series The Tudors….
What do you hope audiences take away from seeing Swive (Elizabeth)?
Of course I hope above all that they’ll feel immersed in the story and enjoy it. But I also hope that it will help them appreciate Elizabeth’s struggle – from the day her father, Henry VIII, died, she lived a life of constant insecurity. She survived numerous plots and even assassination attempts, and was a pawn in marriage games until she was no longer able to bear children. Her cleverness and intellect were often overlooked because she was a woman, and she became a skilled politician in order to survive and balance the demands of the religious factions surrounding her.
She blazed a trail – she governed successfully for 44 years, and I hope our audience will be inspired by her fascinating story and the way it mirrors the struggle of women to negotiate the patriarchy ever since.
Swive (Elizabeth) runs 23 – 27 November.