No less than three plays appearing at the Marlowe this season feature actors playing real life members of the Royal family. It’s in sharp contrast to how things were in the past, as Kate Evans discovers.
Once upon a time, portraying royalty on stage could be a dangerous business. Shakespeare’s Histories deal with long dead kings, and conflicts long since finished, but even that could still be controversial. In 1601, supporters of the Earl of Essex paid The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, forty shillings to perform the playwright’s Richard II- a tale of an ineffective king with no direct heir, whose throne is usurped by a stronger man for the good of the country. Dangerous stuff in late Elizabethan England, where the aging and increasingly unpopular Queen had no children to succeed her. Immediately after this performance. The Earl led a rebellion against the Queen. It failed, and he was executed. It’s not clear how much trouble this caused for The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, although they all seem to have retained their heads at least.
Given the name of Shakespeare’s troupe, it’s ironic that in 1624, just a few years after Shakespeare’s death, the Lord Chamberlain became Britain’s official censor of theatre. These powers were further extended with the Licensing Act of 1737, which essentially held sway until 1968 when the Theatres Act abolished censorship.
During this long period, portrayals of not just royalty but politicians (the 1737 Act was introduced largely to protect then Prime Minister Robert Walpole from satirists) and other eminent people were largely banned. As late as the 1950’s, the Lord Chamberlain’s office was refusing to allow Queen Victoria to be portrayed on stage. A play like Handbagged, which features characterisations of both the Queen and Margaret Thatcher, would have been unthinkable in that era, in which most representations of living people were banned.
Skipping forward, times have now changed so much that showing royalty onstage has moved from being banned to being a trend. As well as Handbagged (based on the weekly audiences between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher during her time as Prime Minister) our audiences at The Marlowe can look forward to seeing King Charles III (a ‘future history’ imagining the Prince of Wales’ first weeks as King) and a revival of Alan Bennett’s Single Spies. This latter is made up of two of Bennett’s one act plays about the notorious Cambridge Spy Ring. One of these, A Question of Attribution, features the Queen in conversation with Anthony Blunt, prior to his unmasking as a Russian secret agent.
The fashion, if that’s what it is, for featuring royalty, probably began with the great Dame Helen Mirren’s turn in the title role in the film ‘The Queen’, for which she won numerous awards, including a Best Actress Oscar. Interest in the monarch was further raised by the Diamond Jubilee in 2012, and a year later, Helen Mirren was once again playing the Queen, this time on stage in London’s West End, in new play The Audience.
What’s notable about all of these work, including the three playing at The Marlowe, it that all of the portrayals of royalty are respectful, even affectionate, in their tone – Spitting Image they are not. Even King Charles III, which deals with an imagined constitutional crisis during the early days of the new king’s reign, is very much not a hatchet job.
This was something that Robert Powell, who will play the title role, made clear to me when I interviewed him recently: “He’s a man for whom I have enormous respect [Robert is an Ambassador for The Prince’s Trust], which is a nice starting point. I can do an impersonation of him, because he has quite a lot of tics and mannerisms, but that’s not what we’re doing.” (You can read this interview in full in Spotlight, our magazine for Marlowe Friends). FYI, having heard Robert’s impression of Prince Charles, I can report that it is uncannily accurate.
Perhaps all these royal appearances on stage show where we’ve got to as a nation in our relationship with our monarchy – affectionate and respectful, rather than scared or grovelling.However you feel about the monarchy, do come along to The Marlowe and see for yourself.
Handbagged: WED 9-SAT 12 SEP BOOK NOW
King Charles III: TUE 27-SAT 31 OCT BOOK NOW
Single Spies: TUE 8- SAT 12 OCT BOOK NOW