Was Elizabeth I insecure?
The playwright of Swive [Elizabeth], Ella Hickson, explains her obsession with exposing the monarch’s insecurities
Ella Hickson has written Swive [Elizabeth] in order to unpack how the monarch’s youth affected her reign. She speaks to Joe Townend about being a playwright obsessed with the power of performativity.
Ten years since her student play Eight opened at the Edinburgh Fringe, bagging a brace of awards and transferring to New York and then London, Ella Hickson is ready to shake things up at the Globe. Her new play Swive [Elizabeth] tells the story of Queen Elizabeth I and opens in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in December. We’re going to be doing some crazy shit,” she says. “The space is magic. It’s got a kind of cosiness to it, which I find quite provocative. I sort of want to explode that.”
Hickson has form for disrupting the traditional theatre-going experience. Her last play, Anna, which opened at the National Theatre in Summer 2019, had the audience listen to the dialogue through individual headphones and watch the action through a glass ‘fourth wall”. A year before that, The Writer at the Almeida in London was a multi-nested play whose protagonist had the driving ambition to “dismantle capitalism and overturn patriarchy”. And 2016’s Oil, also at the Almeida, saw Anne-Marie Duff time travel from 19th-century Cornwall to 1970s Libya.
Perhaps the reason for her disruptive approach is that she learned on the job. Writing “bad poetry” at university and working as a producer, somebody suggested she write a play, “and I did”, she says. “I think you can see someone trying to learn as I went along. I didn’t really know what I was doing.” But there is another, more important reason. Hickson knows that it is not enough to talk about politics using all the trappings of tradition: to really say something bold and fearless, the form itself has to be radical.
There is no surprise, then, when Hickson tells me that Swive is going to play out “like a boxing match”. It features six main characters who “crack through the scenes” in 90 minutes straight through. The breakneck speed of the play is a far cry from traditional retellings of Elizabeth’s reign. “It’s kind of oddly contemporary,” says Hickson.
For Swive [Elizabeth], Hickson wanted to look at how Elizabeth’s youth, during which she was threatened and abused, made her very insecure. The daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth endured the execution of her mother when she was two years old before being disinherited – “bastardised”, says Hickson – and forced to live with a stepfather who was sexually inappropriate with her. By the time she became queen in 1558, she had also been imprisoned by her sister and had escaped a series of threats on her life.
‘I’ve always been fascinated by Elizabeth I – how her insecurity is her greatest strength’
The play shows how Elizabeth created survival mechanisms to cope with her insecurity, including her refusal to get married, despite immense political pressure. “These mechanisms are actually incredibly useful for a long-running monarch,” says Hickson. “The fact she doesn’t marry and doesn’t have children are the best things she could have done, considering the situation.”
The story of Elizabeth I has preoccupied Hickson for a long time, so when the opportunity came to collaborate with the Globe, she jumped at the chance. “I’ve always been fascinated by Elizabeth I,” she says. “There’s something about the conversation between insecurity and strength – how her insecurity is her greatest strength.”
In Swive [Elizabeth], Hickson wants to show how Elizabeth lived with the same kinds of emotions as anybody else. She hopes that audiences will recognise the similarities between their feelings and those of the characters in the play. “I feel like it’s more universal if you realise that what we’re feeling today has been felt by a queen in 1600,” she says.
There is something about taking history and imbuing it with contemporary emotions that appeals to her. “I’m managing it on my own terms,” she says, “and that feels quite thrilling.” Some of the story is fabricated, but a lot of it she describes as “ingested” – “you really take it all in and then you try and use all that information to try and speak newly or truly from the character.” Is she confident of the results? “You see where that gets you, I guess, but to put my contemporary feelings into the historical framework feels more robust, in a sense, than just a contemporary telling.”
She believes that power has something to do with it, but suggests that it is a compromised kind of power when you gain it by performing for other people. “If intimacy is based on truth, then the effect of being sexually provocative or of flirting is somehow corrosive to that truth,” she says. Has she always felt like this? “I guess as you get older, different things preoccupy you. I feel increasingly aggravated by performativity as I get older, and I feel I want to be around it less and less.”
Swive [Elizabeth] explores the effects of flirting on the political stage. Elizabeth is somebody who has a lot of power, and each suitor that tries to marry her is interested in that power. Hickson imagines Elizabeth “constantly interrogating” her own feelings about these men, who use every trick in the book to woo her. While she uses some of those techniques herself, Elizabeth also knows she needs to have a “good radar” for men who will flirt with her to get what they want.
‘Swive [Elizabeth] explores the effects of flirting on the political stage. Elizabeth is somebody who has a lot of power, and each suitor that tries to marry her is interested in that power’
Hickson sees a parallel in present-day gender politics. “I think men are afforded competency a bit more, whereas women often have to play all sorts of different identities.” The compromises women make and the roles they perform have come under her microscope before. Her 2018 play The Writer features a scene that will sound familiar to anyone in the post-Weinstein era: a young playwright is offered a job by an older director, who then makes a pass at her.
This scene could have jumped out of any newspaper in the last two years. As sexism and abuse against women in the arts has increasingly been exposed, some theatres have taken decisive steps to undo the long-term damage this has done to the representation of women on stage. In her role as artistic director at the Globe, Michelle Terry has promised more diverse casting in terms of gender, with a 50/50 split between men and women.
These efforts seem to be paying off. When asked what obstacles women writers face today, Hickson smiles. “I’m not sure that there are any in contemporary British theatre.” Theatres are crying out for plays by women, she says, and they’re desperate to cast women. “The only obstacle really is the canon. And the fact that David Hare hasn’t died yet!”
With the next generation growing up demanding equality from arts institutions, she will be keeping a close eye on the young women writers just starting out now. Her all-time favourite playwrights are men – Tennessee Williams and Federico García Lorca – and she laments the lack of women who she has had to look up to. “When I look at who I could become, there’s really only Caryl Churchill ahead of me,” she says. “I think that will be really different for the generation behind me. Hopefully, they will see far more women with full careers.”
‘I think that will be really different for the generation behind me. Hopefully, they will see far more women with full careers’
For a playwright, a full career has several stages, and Hickson is keenly attuned to where she is in hers. She was recently asked to write an adaptation of Oedipus Rex for the Old Vic in London (”I was like, it’s the Old Vic, and it’s [director] Matthew Warchus. Yes. Absolutely I will do that.”) and knows that this puts her firmly in her mid-career. Coming to a point where she feels comfortable tackling history – from Elizabethan England to Ancient Greece – is also a matter of confidence in her own life experience. “I just think a Greek adaptation written by anyone under 28 – you need to sort your chops out before you attack that stuff,” she says.
When I ask about plans further ahead, she tells me she has a couple of documents on her computer that are “ready to go”, including one that is around 90 pages long. Instead of jumping straight into production, however, she wants to sit with them for a while. It’s a way of her gaining distance from the moment she wrote it in; to be able to return to it without the process being “devastating”.
Part of the appeal of history and mythology is that she gets to spend more time thinking about other people’s lives, and less about her own. “I’m bored of my own experience,” she says. “I feel less inclined to just bare my soul.” She reflects on The Writer as the “end of an era in terms of gushing” and looks forward to experimenting more with form. “Just thinking about people a bit more than yourself; and that feels like a sensible thing to be doing.”