In person she was seemly, amiable and beauteous … and … full gracious: Anne Neville actress poll
Praying for any reader of this blog and indeed for anyone who’s in the path of Irene at the moment. Stay dry, kids, stay safe.
Yes, this post is really long, and serious rather than funny, but if you stick it out to the end, there’s a fun poll!
Richard Armitage turns 40 this week. What to get the man who insists he already has everything? Answer: more work for our beloved workaholic. Since watching his work gives us so much delicious fantasy fulfillment, we thought we’d turn the tables with a fantasy present: the job that he’s most repeatedly expressed interest in doing — a retelling of the Richard III story. We’re not agents or producers, and we can’t finance this project or cast him in it or write the scripts, so we’re doing the next best thing: a week of background, context, musings, and jokes about why we’re dying to see our Richard play that Richard. Would you like to share the fantasy more actively? Sign the manifesto: Richard Armitage for Richard III! We hope you enjoy the week!
[For reasons that will become obvious shortly, I think I need to say here that I haven’t finished The Sunne in Splendour (my half-read copy is in a box somewhere at the moment), so I don’t know how Dunnett deals with the issues explored here and hence haven’t incorporated her.]
From left to right: Anne Neville, Richard III, and their son, Edward, in a fifteenth-century depiction from the English version of the so-called “Rous Roll” (British Museum Add. MS. 48976, should you want to try to order it the next time you’re there), a historical res gestae of the Warwick family composed by John Rous (c. 1411-1491) and written down and illustrated by several unknown hands. (Note that the Latin version is significantly different both in its emended text, the hands that produced it, and the images that survive.) The work closes with the reign of Richard III and so these illustrations probably date from 1483-85. The quotation in the title, a description of Anne, comes from Rous’s text for the work. Although initially a York client, in one of whose endowments he served as a chantry priest, after the succession of the Tudors, Rous began backpedaling and is responsible for the first bizarre stories about Richard III, especially the charge that he spent two years gestating, made in his pro-Tudor Historia Regum Angliae (1486).
Now that Richard III has settled definitely the question of who should play him in any franchise reboot, we need to move on to the question of which actress is best suited to play Anne Neville, Richard’s wife.
Anne’s relationship with Richard was also strongly mischaracterized by that historical charlatan, Shakespeare, as one of coercion and enmity. In Richard III, Act I, scene ii, after the death of her father-in-law, Henry VI, Anne accuses Richard of murder and hurls a lot of nasty language at him. Really not Shakespeare’s best moment, dialogue-wise; I always feel like this scene is over the top, a parody of Elizabethan drama rather than a successful example of it, and an exception to what I find an often sensitive scripting of women in the history plays. The Bard of Avon has Richard say flattering things to Anne because he’s supposed to be deceiving her; nonetheless, the sentiment is nice if you read them literally. Richard to Anne: “Your beauty was the cause of that effect; Your beauty: which did haunt me in my sleep / To undertake the death of all the world, So I might live one hour in your sweet bosom,” and then again, after a discouraging response, “These eyes could never endure sweet beauty’s wreck; You should not blemish it, if I stood by: As all the world is cheered by the sun, So I by that; it is my day, my life.” As the plot of play runs, though, Richard importunes Anne at the coffin of her father-in-law, marries her, poisons her, and then is haunted by her afterwards.
Where is that right hand going? Breast or throat? A tense relationship: Richard III (Kevin Spacey) and Anne Neville (Annabel Scholey) in Richard III (2011). Source.
So redressing the wrongs to Richard III in Shakespeare’s work also involves rewriting the relationship between the two.
The obvious option that many readers would prefer is that this rewritten story could potentially be tremendously romantic. The pair knew each other as children and indeed were first, second and third cousins once removed. A powerful politician, Anne’s father, Richard, Earl of Warwick (the “Kingmaker”), used his two daughters as pawns to strengthen his alliances. Betrothed to Richard as a girl, Anne’s engagement was broken when her father decided she could be put to better use elsewhere; married to the heir to the English throne, she was left without protection when her father and her husband were killed in battle and her person became the object of a dispute over her claim to her father’s estates. Her brother-in-law and guardian — the Duke of Clarence, who was also Richard’s brother — pay attention, this detail will become important later — wanted to prevent her marriage to Richard in order to maintain the integrity of his wife, Anne’s sister’s, claim to inheritance of Warwick’s estates. What happened next is a matter of historical obscurity — perhaps Anne fled her brother-in-law, perhaps he hid her in order to prevent a liaison with Richard. Part of the problem in reconstructing events, aside from the lack of historical sources, is our at best blurry understanding of the extent of and limitations on female agency in fifteenth-century England and the way that we’ve forgotten the capacity of people we’d now consider teenagers to act as adults — Anne was fourteen and already widowed when all this happened. It was certainly in Anne’s interest to marry Richard, but the decision involved the creation of strife with her sister, the practical disinheritance of her mother, who had fled to a convent and was eventually declared legally dead, and the flouting of her brother-in-law’s plans. Marrying Richard could have been romantic, but it was also clearly a strike out in favor of increased power and rank for herself using the only lever she had: the location, possession, and sovereignty over / usufruct of her body.
The most pathetically romantic version of the story goes that Anne was hiding in obscurity from her guardian until Richard reappeared to escort her to sanctuary in the church of St Martin le Grand, London. Laying aside for a second the fact that no matter how youthful he appears, Mr. Armitage is much too old to be playing a nineteen-year-old, can you imagine what an amazing scene that would make in the hands of Richard Armitage and the right actress? My heart is beating faster already. So whoever writes this script has to put lots in it about what happened between Richard and Anne after this episode. Because Servetus wants to see lotsa love — and not just gloppy love — but the love of between a man who’d struggled all his life for position and a woman who was autonomous enough at the age of fourteen to consent to a kidnapping whose consequences would set her at odds with her entire family.
But there’s another piece of this love story that complicates both the script and the casting question.
Richard III and Anne Neville, now Queen Consort, depicted at their coronation (July 6, 1483), from the Salisbury Roll, a work that possibly inspired the creation of the Rous Roll. Stylized rather than realistic drawings, obviously, though it’s gone down in history that Anne had reddish / auburn hair.
You’ll note above that I emphasized the family relationships between Richard and Anne. Cousins three times over, they also became brother- and sister-in-law when Anne’s sister, Isabelle Neville, married Richard’s brother, George Duke of Clarence. All of these relationships should have prevented them from marrying as they transgressed canon law at the time governing the degree of familial affinity permitted in marriages by four separate connections. Hence, Richard applied for papal dispensation to permit the marriage, a dispensation probably granted some time after their vows and consummation, but, and this is key, Richard applied for dispensation only from the cousin relationships. As Professor Michael Hicks notes, Richard must have been aware that legal impediments to his marriage still persisted, and thus, that Anne was not his legal wife nor their issue his legal heirs, i.e., he must have made this defective application intentionally. As Hicks writes, “He contrived, however … to continue living with Anne as man and wife, to secure her coronation as queen, and their son’s elevation first as earl of Salisbury (1477) and then as prince of Wales (1483).” He did enough to legalize their union that, had all gone well, he’d have been able to maintain the legal fiction, but even as he married her, no matter the extent of his affections, he was already hedging his bets.
This calculation — one hardly unusual in the noble politics of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (Henry VIII played a similar game with Anne Boleyn; they had applied for papal dispensation because he’d created a canon law affinity obstacle to their marriage by dallying with her sister years prior to their relationship, and it became a matter of legal discussion in the months before her execution, as Alison Weir has discussed in a fantastic book) — is one of the things that made it easy for historians to blacken his reputation. Importantly, though, it is also just the plot element that could make the script for any reboot tremendously interesting and, what is more significant from my perspective at least, make this a masterful performance in the hands of Richard Armitage. In a retelling of the story where Richard III loves Anne Neville, he must be both her chivalric lover and protector and the enabler of her autonomy, but also the potential instrument of her destruction. In the end, for him to succeed, she must be destroyed along the way: and how will Richard III (and Armitage) deal with this?
For the advantages conferred upon Richard through his marriage to Anne had all been priced in or exhausted by the time their only child, a son, died in 1484. Anne’s health was not such that another pregnancy was likely, and the death of the heir made Richard’s political position precarious. Anne’s wealth and properties had been transferred to him already via the marriage settlement, somewhat unusually, but probably because he was already thinking about the potential for a divorce. As Hicks continues,
“Anne conferred no diplomatic connections and possessed no independent title to the crown to reinforce his own. It is no wonder, therefore, … that he considered a divorce and remarriage, obviously to a lady able to bring him an heir and some of these other attributes. He knew well, after all, that his marriage had never been valid. He had only to reveal the absence of a valid dispensation to bring it to an end … Quite what would have befallen his ex-queen we cannot tell because the marriage was never declared null. No divorce was necessary, as Anne’s health declined and she died on 16 March 1485. So convenient was this that Richard was alleged to have poisoned her – a charge that he explicitly denied on 30 March. … There is no reason to doubt Richard’s declaration of his sorrow at Anne’s death. It was political expediency and self-preservation that motivated him, not dislike for Anne. … Anne cannot, however, have been ignorant of the rumours of divorce: her last year must have been sad indeed.”
So what would be intriguing here, if the script writers would play up the romantic mood of the relationship, including all the stories about Richard’s rescue of Anne, would be to script a very tortured Richard who loves Anne but also realizes that in order to consolidate all the gains that he made by marrying her in the first place, he has to abandon her for another. That’s the kind of plot line that Armitage, with his physical, gestural and physiognomical capacity to say multiple things at once, to convey the tortured soul set up on his path, the ambivalent man who’s decided nonetheless to act, could deliver masterfully and definitively. Really, with a script like that, Armitage could present the Richard III redress for half a century.
All of this implies, of course, not just the right script — writers, feel free to call me if you’d like to discuss this at further length — but also the right actress. She has to be both open and vulnerable enough to play love, smart and savvy enough to play autonomous political actor, and complex enough to know how to deal with the aging Anne’s growing awareness that she’s the obstacle in the path to her husband’s secure throne. Big challenges for anyone.
So here are some choices. Any selection is ultimately arbitrary given the wealth of acting talent in the English-speaking world. I set the following boundaries. Since Richard was about five years older than Anne, the actress in question has to be no more than two years older than Richard Armitage and not look older than him. In order not to strain the bounds of credibility, she must have demonstrated already that she can deliver a credible English accent. In order to prove that she’d be capable of the challenge of this role, she must have played at least one significant and successful role in a historical drama. And given Mr. Armitage’s interest in working with colleagues who challenge and bring out the best in him, I added an undefinable quality which is something like “backbone,” or “the ability to give the guy a run for his money.”
1. Cate Blanchett. b. 1969. Australian. An Armitage favorite, the actress he’s said he’d like to work with — and we hope he’s finally met her on the set of The Hobbit. Proved her early modern British street cred with Elizabeth (1998), which won her a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for her role as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator (2004), she’s also sometimes called “the next Meryl Streep.”
Elizabeth I (Blanchett) rouses her troops before the Spanish Armada invasion of 1588 in Elizabeth:
2. Kate Winslet. b. 1975. English. A Servetus favorite and hence the one that Richard III himself suggested in his grant of privilege to Armitage this week. Actually, I wish their shared agent would introduce them, as she’s separated from Sam Mendes. Casting her as Anne in a production with him as Richard III would be a good way to get them together, no? Another actress who can say a lot with her face, without needing to speak. Veteran of numerous historical dramas, but potentially most relevant roles are Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Quills (2000). Winner of numerous awards, most notably Academy Award Best Actress for The Reader (2008). Potentially a bit too energetic for this role, but she does desperate and bedraggled and vulnerable extremely well, and she’d be a very active, even potentially saucy, Anne Neville.
Marianne Dashwood (Winslet), anguished over her situation in Sense and Sensibility:
3. Jodhi May. b. 1975. English. Potentially the thinking woman’s Anne Neville, the actress herself is extremely private and more than a bit geeky. Armitage has called her “cerebral” in discussing her role as Layla Thompson in Strike Back, work I imagine she took for the money, though many of us would have preferred to see her in Porter’s arms as opposed to Danni. Key historical roles: a fantastically convincing Mirah Lapidoth in Daniel Deronda (2002), and an effective Anne Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl (2003). Does more TV and theatre than film.
Mirah Lapidoth (May), a Jewish refugee from central Europe, rescued by Daniel Deronda (Hugh Dancy), sings for the people who have taken her in (not only historical drama, but non-Jew playing Jew in historical drama, always a particularly hard sell for me, but May does it well here):
4. Mia Wasikowska. b. 1989. Australian. The youngest of the candidates, and the one with the least professional experience, but for me her performance was the main thing to love in Jane Eyre (2011). She was also fantastic in In Treatment, a project that I ended up disliking except for her. What could she be if she were working in a really effective project?
Since you’ve all seen her in Jane Eyre, I’ll give you a contrasting picture of her work in In Treatment, an HBO series that follows the weekly appointments of four different patients with a struggling therapist (Gabriel Byrne). Wasikowska plays Sophie, a talented gymnast and Olympic hopeful who’s more than a little ambivalent about her life, her choices, her parents, and her coach. You’d never know that Wasikowska wasn’t an American teenager, she embodies this role so successfully. Here excerpts from episode 1:
5. Felicity Jones. b. 1984. English. Probably unknown to most readers of this blog except the Brits. Nominating her for her excellent work in Northanger Abbey (2007), and because she’s on a lot of “young British actresses to watch” lists. A definite dark horse, but an actress with capacity for both young and sweet and strong and sharp.
Jones as the naive Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey:
Here’s the poll. Let me know what you think, and, of course, you have another actress to propose, in the comments.
Happy Birthday month Richard Armitage! In honor of this event, consider donating your time, energy, and thoughts / prayers to an effort that’s meaningful to you. If you need a suggestion, here’s a link to Mr. Armitage’s recommended charities at JustGiving, as well as a link to means of generating a charity contribution on his behalf at RichardArmitageOnline.com, and a link to Act!onAid, a child sponsorship organization for which he recorded a voiceover in December 2010. Donate to Christchurch Earthquake Appeal here.