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4 May 2011

Sealed with a kiss

Our theatre blogger reflects on last week's big production at Westminster Abbey.

By Gina Allum

“Help me,” read a friend’s email at 9am on Friday, “I think I’m a monarchist after all!” My suggestion was to take a deep breath; it would pass. As a desultory anti-royalist I sat down to “enjoy” the wedding with a protective armoury of irony and scare quotes. Oh, it was to be so very post-modern. As a theatre-watcher I was almost honour-bound to study the performance qua theatrical event (multi-media, site-specific, promenade, street theatre). After all, though you may well wish otherwise, you don’t get audiences of two billion for your average production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

But it wasn’t long before I was also fearing for my own default republican principles. What a show! What – what? – was that catch in the throat as I watched the two princes, in their “let’s pretend” costumes, emerge from Clarence House? Nausea, I diagnosed, hopefully. But no, there was something powerfully affective about this gig, even before the leading lady came on. The last time I’d looked – really looked – at these two men was nearly 14 years ago, as they’d trailed their mother’s coffin: two Lost Boys. There was a connective tug of sorts. A tenuous one, perhaps, but we connect where we can.

Like many good plays, this plot is darkly absorbing. It’s a fairy tale, all right, in the Grimm and violent Mitteleuropean tradition, where Little Red Riding Hood is eaten, Sleeping Beauty is raped, and the Queen in Snow White is forced to dance to her death in red-hot shoes. German fairy tales (and the Saxe-Coburg yarn is no exception) don’t end with happily ever after, but with something altogether more pragmatic, along the lines of “and they are still living here today, unless they have died”. In this case, the fairy princess was long dead, though the memory of her puffed-up nuptials would lend a minor chord to the celebrations.

On, then – with sympathies fatally stirred – to the theatre itself. Westminster Abbey, the seat of Royal power since 1066 and all that, designed with shock and awe in mind and now charmingly “greened” for the event. Okay, the extras were an insalubrious bunch, and a tad over-decorated, but the leading lady adjudged her costume just right (in danger only of being stealthily upstaged by the supporting actress), and was perfectly composed under those beetling brows. The HD close-ups revealed just enough of her dry-mouthed nerves.

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I faded in and out of the service, well used to cherry picking in churches; volume up for the music (we do trumpets very well) volume down, or even off, for the prayerful bits. And then triumphal rides through London, and she still waves like a normal person, really waving, not a codified, etiolated stump of a wave.

And what, if anything, did it all mean? Well, it means what you want it to. A celebrity hairdresser is quoted as saying it signifies the end of straightening irons, and the era of the heated roller. We will appropriate it to our own ends, as we always do. But for those who long ago lost faith in religion, we perhaps retain a hard-wired partiality to ritual, driven by the needy reptilian brain. Which probably explains the enduring appeal of theatre: we have a chemical craving to watch the shamans do their stuff.

It’s also about shared experience, and perhaps it doesn’t really matter what the event is. The more arbitrary, anachronistic and anomalous the better. For one day, most eyes were trained on the same thing, rather like in the prosaic near past, when, in another degenerate rite, we all watched the same telly of an evening. Rationally we may agree with Diderot that we will never be free until the last king has been strangled with the entrails of the last priest, but the responses of “the masses” surely have less to do with the power of the monarchy than the power of this collective experience, and the associated payoffs from the limbic system.

Collective memory will bind the event up together with the holiday, the unseasonably fine weather, an extended festive, estival Easter. And through all the storm of symbols and semiotics, at its heart were two human beings, not ciphers, who seem to know and love each other, and with whom for all the world I would not swap places.