An enjoyable anecdote in John Campbell’s new biography of Roy Jenkins involves Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s last-minute wobble over the attempt by Jenkins, as home secretary in the late 1960s, to abolish theatrical censorship by the Lord Chamberlain. Initially supportive, Wilson suddenly argued for the retention of some sort of blue pencil in order, he said, to prevent the dramatisation of living figures, such as the Queen.
A more cynical interpretation (suspected by Jenkins then and Campbell now) is that Downing Street’s motivation lay closer to home: a play called Mrs Wilson’s Diary, satirising the British first lady, was about to open. But if Wilson was trying to protect his monarch rather than his missus from Jenkins’s liberalisation of the stage, then the ex-PM has been vindicated.
Two plays featuring the current queen opened on the same night this month: the world premiere of King Charles III by Mike Bartlett at London’s Almeida Theatre and the West End transfer of Moira Buffini’s Kilburn Tricycle hit Handbagged, which, in common with the central scene in Peter Morgan’s The Audience, last year’s Shaftesbury Avenue sell-out, imagines Her Majesty’s meetings with Margaret Thatcher.
As the title King Charles III suggests, Elizabeth II appears in this play only in mournful reported speech and possibly as a ghost seen by her eldest son as he prepares for his coronation. Yet, half a century after Wilson fretted about portrayals of the Mountbatten-Windsors on the boards, Bartlett, a 33-year-old whose previous work includes Love, Love, Love and 13, has written the boldest and most provocative play about the royal family in British theatrical history.
From the opening stage direction in the published text – “A choir sings. The funeral procession of Queen Elizabeth II goes past” – Bartlett enters areas that British patriotism and tact tend to avoid. In both speech rhythms (the play is largely in blank verse) and structure, the model is clearly Shakespeare – but while he wrote 11 histories of English kings, he was careful to avoid his own period, going no closer than Henry VIII, a biography of the father of his former patron, which avoids any mention of Anne Boleyn’s murder. Shakespeare was at risk of execution for treason, while the worst Bartlett must fear is appalled editorials in the royalist press – but King Charles III is still brave. Having killed off the present Queen, Bartlett imagines Charles III (played by Tim Pigott-Smith) continuing his habits as heir by imposing his views on ministers, sparking a constitutional crisis by refusing to sign his (supposedly ceremonial) royal assent to a bill he dislikes.
While the press and public of the second Elizabethan age may approve of this view of Charles as a meddling monarch, they may be more startled by the presentation of William and Catherine as baddies. In the most remarkable scene, the ghost of Diana appears to her elder son, who is now Prince of Wales and heir to the throne. If the Lord Chamberlain still policed the stage, Bartlett would be in the tower. This is the first piece of theatre to treat the royals like any other subject.
Although Jenkins liberated playwrights to portray the living in 1968, another two decades passed before the first depiction of the Queen, as a character called HMQ in Alan Bennett’s A Question of Attribution at the National Theatre. Even then, as the diaries of the former NT boss Richard Eyre record, some of the theatre’s board, drawn from the sort of people who had patted a few corgis at the palace, were opposed to Her Majesty being played. Prunella Scales, however, received universally admiring reviews and was followed by Pam Ferris in Sue Townsend’s 1994 adaptation of her novel The Queen and I, Helen Mirren in The Audience and now Marion Bailey and Clare Holman as older and younger versions of the monarch in Handbagged.
The oddity of the Elizabeth II fictions is that all of the dramatisations have sanctified her in a way that has happened to only one other public figure: Nelson Mandela. Although Bennett, Townsend, Morgan and Buffini are all politically leftish, the Queen emerges from their scripts as a perfect public servant with an intelligently wry private humour. Because the Queen has almost never expressed a personal opinion, she is a blank sheet for a writer and all so far have presented her as a benevolent check on the excesses of politicians. By implied contrast with the disastrous reign of Charles, this is also her portrait in Bartlett’s play.
That is what should concern any monarchist objectors to the latest piece of royal theatre. Elizabeth II, onstage, has always been a heroine, which is how history seems likely to judge her. But the Prince of Wales, in King Charles III, is depicted as a tragic figure, which, again, seems likely to be the verdict of historians.
“King Charles III” runs at the Almeida Theatre, London N1, until 31 May; “Handbagged” is at the Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2, until 2 August