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Almeida Theatre Production

Matinee session, Wednesday 20 April 2016, ticket $89 (student concession)

I am not a regular theatre goer, so this was something of a treat for a quiet Wednesday afternoon.  The theatre was full, a mix of older and younger people, presumably those not at work on a week day during the school holidays.  The play has been favourably reviewed in Sydney’s mainstream press, with a half-half split between reviewers over whether it had political resonances and implications in Australia.[1]  Playwright Mike Bartlett says this is “a play about the moment Charles takes the throne, and how his conscience would lead him to refuse to sign a bill into law.  An epic royal family drama, dealing with power and national constitution … the form had to be Shakespearean”.[2]

My interest is in the play as ‘future history’ rather than as theatre or literature, and this review is directed to that end.  The acting and production values were, as all the press reviewers say, brilliant and engaging.  As theatre, I enjoyed the experience, and perhaps the first point to make is that this is fiction not history, a distinction that needs to be kept in mind.

The Characters

The concise narrative and plot are needed for such a melodramatic story, but in reality the political and dynastic events would be much more complex.  Archetypes are useful for allowing the plot to unfold without the distractions of too many sub-plots, but they can also distance the characters from their ‘real’ namesakes and tend at times to almost reduce them to caricature.  I thought this most noticeable in the Duchess of Cornwall who not only does not seem to have become Queen (she is never referred to as Her Majesty) but seems like an unmediated reflection of the shallow personality presented by the media.  Would a woman whose love for her man spanned so many obstacles really be that flaky?

The character of Prince Harry is believable in some ways, but is he really so vacuous, or is that again a media creation given a sort of authenticity by the playwright?  I found it hard to believe that a man now in his thirties would still be behaving like a petulant teenager, even allowing for the fictive nature of the character.

The character of Kate, on the other hand, is that of the woman every family needs if it is to hold together.  If the real Kate is anything like this, the dynasty is in strong hands, and she is the true heir to Queen Elizabeth.  It’s not surprising that Kate and William emerge as glorious, if somewhat troubled, characters.

Then there’s the star, King Charles III.  Charles’ refusal of assent to a bill is necessary for the storyline, but I find it a bit hard to believe.  I have no doubt that after his long apprenticeship he has worked out ways to ‘influence’ things without the need for a head-on confrontation.  A refusal of royal assent seems too crude, and the irony of wanting to protect ‘freedom of expression’ given the role of the media in his own marriage break-up and the death of Diana, and so on makes that an unlikely casus belli – The option of refusing to assent to an airport/environment bill, referred to in the beginning, seems a more likely trigger, but it still assumes his lack of wisdom is also real, and that I find difficult to believe.

The other main character is the set.  The bare brick walls, arched doorways and remnants of plaster work suggest a classical ruin, presumably intended to suggest the storyline is revealing a ‘stripped back’ monarchy, showing antiquated roots and crumbling character. I think a Gothic ruin with its provocative imaginary would have been more successful, and surely at least one representation of royal heraldry with all its allusions to endurance and continuity, perhaps in this case damaged or even altered, would have been apposite?  The avoidance of the term ‘United Kingdom’ and instead serial references to its constituent kingdoms or entities seems to be a verbal synonym for heraldic display

The Shakespearean allusion to a hollow crown towards the end of the play is a literary, not historical, allusion, but it provides a segue from theatre to history.

History

The idea of the kings two bodies is often alluded to, and the play contains a great representation of this in the confrontation between William and Charles in the heated clash between bodies corporate and natural, between father and son, between sovereign and heir.  The idea is also evident in the distinction often made in the play between crown and state.  For some in an Australian audience, where these terms are casually treated as synonyms, this may seem an arcane point, but it would be rewarding to see the play again with a greater consciousness of this duality of king as state and king as man.

The ‘abdication solution’ seems to echo that of Edward VIII, but in the play continuity is re-established as unchanging. Harry returns to the fold, to continue as playboy prince; Kate accepts a submissive role as queen consort, politics appears to return to normal.  But tradition operates by being mutable, not by ossification.  After the real abdication in 1936 everything changed, and the art of that change lay in making it seem as through nothing had changed.  The new King and Queen were both crowned, not just the King.  The ‘spare’ royal brothers took on royal and vice-regal duties (Prince Henry was later an Australian Governor General).  Their marriages were to Britons, not continental Europeans, and they were in Westminster Abbey, presented as an ancient tradition, even though no royal marriages had been held there for several centuries.  In this regard, the reinvention of the dynasty by George V in 1917 is critical to understanding the subtle and fundamental relationship between apparent continuity and actual change (even if some American television script writers have recently pronounced the implausibility of such a link).  If William V’s reign, like that of George VI’s, follows a traumatic abdication, history would suggest it will be ‘great’, as the ghost predicts in the play and not ‘hollow’ as the playwright has Charles pronounce.

The tensions between royal conscience and democratic politics is ‘of the now’, in that the politicians are believable in their oleaginous expediency.  They are presented as universal characters in any Westminster political system, and are entirely believable.  However, the ‘conservatives’ apparent ambiguity regarding the monarchy and crown is puzzling.  The requirements of the plot for black/white characters may be the explanation, but in reality it seems unlikely that conservative parties would so easily acquiesce to a bill to remove the role of royal assent, especially given the weakness of any other constraints on a dictatorial prime minister in the British version of Westminster without any senate or federal states or other strong institutions constraining tyrannical executive powers.  The royal assent may seem to be ‘only’ ceremonial, but as Charles’ character shows, a meeting of royal conscience and parliamentary ritual could be powerfully disrupting.  The faux politeness of the progressive prime minister is believable, but the apparent passivity of the conservatives isn’t.

Australia

Some media reviews have sought to equate the situation in the play to Australia, and John Howard’s operation of a sort of ‘executive prime ministership’ after 1999 might suggest a route to such an equation.  However, deferral of royal assent is not unknown when for ceremonial purposes a bill may be reserved for the sovereign’s assent rather than a vice-regal signature.  The unilateral dismissal of a parliament in the play is very different to 1975 when Sir John Kerr dismissed the prime minister not the parliament, and the caretaker prime minister he appointed then requested a dissolution and election of the parliament.  The politics of 1975 may have been contentious, but as with events in the play, the constitutionality of those events is another matter.

In some ways, the monarchy in the play is unfamiliar to Australians, in other ways it is very familiar.  That may reflect a similarity of partisan views in both countries between a progressive left and a conservative right.  But spectra of political or communal identities are rarely so black or white, and elements of a straw monarchy have to be created by or for the plot.  That strawness is as obvious in Australia as I suppose it would be in Britain.

There is an inference as the play unfolds that Charles is unsuitable as a monarch because he has a conscience and would act on it.  It would be easy to think this reflects a British view, as evidenced by a comment from a British republican on the Queen’s 90th birthday that the older she becomes, the more the succession looms, putting the crown in a ‘perilous position’, alluding to the supposed unsuitability of Charles.[3]  That sort of derision of Prince Charles, questioning or equating his supposed eccentricity with unsuitability, is common-enough among Australian republicans as well.[4]  The character of Charles even alludes to it in the play, suggesting the strength of the media characterisation of the man.

However, I think his critics are constructing a straw heir for polemical purposes.  It is equally as likely Charles III, like Edward VII, will prove them all wrong.  His interests and passions in the environment, public architecture, cultural heritage, spirituality and aesthetics, and his capacity for subtle communicating and influencing, are the interests of an educated, civilised, renaissance man, not the foolish straw man of republican narrative (perhaps that is the secret fear of the straw Carolines?).  In that sense, the play (although not the actor) does him and us a disservice.  It is useful to remember that Shakespeare’s literary Richard III turns out to be nothing like the historical character.

Conclusion

I enjoyed the play.  The performances were first rate, and the set simple and atmospheric.  The whole production provokes the imagination and provides cause to think of possible futures.  For those reasons alone, it should not be missed.

As a historian, however, I found the story a little limiting because, as indicated earlier, I think such a conflict would be much more complex and unpredictable, and the post-conflict traumas would be long-lasting.  I’m not sure that an Australian playwright (or playwright based in Australia) would have developed a markedly different storyline.  I’m no nationalist, and am averse to ascribing essential characteristics to nationality.  I don’t believe there is any real sign that Australians will reject Charles as our next king or be surprised that he reigns according to all the correct forms and rituals.  Bartlett’s play will not change the views anyone already holds on these matters, especially those still locked in the fossilised conflicts of 1990s republicanism.  However, through his fictive characters, Bartlett does open a space for communal imaginings, beyond the divisions of the 1990s, of more interesting ideas for fusions of republican-monarchism or monarchist-republicanism in a post-national state.

Perhaps, if a playwright wants to challenge an audience in Australia (or any of the Sixteen Realms) to look at monarchy or the crown differently, she might take as her moment that when the succession to the Australian Crown is conferred upon Prince Harry or Princess Charlotte rather than William V.

Meanwhile, go and see this play.

 

[1] Louise Schwartzkoff, ‘Future King’, Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum, 2 April 2016, page 6; Jason Blake, ‘Riveting study of monarchy must-see theatre’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 April 2016, page 11; Steve Dow, ‘King Charles III Review – Shakespearean take on future reign raises unique questions for Australia’, The Guardian Australia, 5 April 2016; Polly Simons, ‘King Charles III an audacious look at a right royal drama’, Daily Telegraph, 7 April 2016

[2] King Charles III Program, ‘Writer’s Note’, page 7

[3] see ‘Nation lights up for one’s 90th’, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 April 2016, page 24

[4] Greg Craven, ‘If FitzSimons is really the man to lead us to a republic, I’ll eat my bandanna’, The Australian, 21 September 2015, page 12; editorial, ‘Prince Charles and the road to a republic’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 November 2015, page 18

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