A lot has changed in theatreland since Richard III was first played as a conniving, murderous hunchback. Understandably written during the reign of the Yorkist’s rival’s house (that’s Tudor, history buffs), the slightly one-sided account of a king’s rise and fall is nonetheless surprising in its skewering of a former monarch, if only because it is – in a very partisan way – unabashedly political.
This may have seemed obvious at the time when the crown still held almost all the relevant levers of power, but to modern audiences, the idea of an anti-monarchical night of theatre is something of a foreign concept. It doesn’t help, probably, that half the venues in the UK are named after a member of the current royal family, or that a night at the theatre is often perceived as a class-dependent activity.
But where modern theatre takes bold, controversial steps in some directions, on the matter of the monarchy, dissenting voices rarely make their way to a mainstream stage. Instead, recent dramatisations of royal life are almost universally positive and rarely, if ever, directly political.
Take The Crown creator Peter Morgan’s The Audience from 2013 as an example. Centring on her majesty’s weekly meetings with assorted Prime Ministers, the play’s original West End run was stuffed to the brim with Westminster politics and even regularly updated to keep up with the hot topics of the day.
The Queen herself, though, never seems to be fair game in the play as written. She is, to all intents and purposes, politically neutral, despite her very presence being a pretty big deal in the UK’s unwritten constitution.
In fact, the same topics rear their heads on the stage again and again as far as the crown is concerned. Even in modern interpretations of historical monarchs, the shackles of royal duties (Queen Anne, The Royal Ballet’s Elizabeth, Mary Stuart) or even gossipy conjecture about what goes on behind closed palace doors (Handbagged) come up regularly.
While fringe theatre often touches on Britain’s colonial past, even here, the modern royal family is rarely tackled head-on. Demographically, this isn’t all that surprising – recent polling from YouGov suggests that 62% of the country are in favour of the continuation of the monarchy, with just 25% actively calling for an elected head of state. Frankly, it’s difficult to address an issue when such an overwhelming majority of the public aren’t with you.
James Clements’ The Diana Tapes, back in 2018, might have raised a tentative middle finger to the Windsors, if only really because of the nominally uncomfortable subject matter. Broadway’s Diana: The Musical (available on Netflix now) does the same in its own, quaintly masochistic, way.
Diana might be one of the most recent sticks to beat the royals with, and she’s certainly one of the most overused, but it’s rare for mainstream theatre to sidle past the personal angle of the people’s princess to address more political concerns with the crown as an institution. Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, then, remains a pretty obvious outlier. Predicting what turns out to be the current moment, in the immediate aftermath of Elizabeth II’s death, Bartlett imagines the constitutional crisis which might soon cripple the monarchy as Charles seeks to veto a controversial bill restricting the freedom of the press.
Written entirely in blank verse, the play finds itself an interesting stablemate of Shakespeare’s monarchical histories. The key difference, of course, is that the target of Bartlett’s sharpened biro is a current royal rather than a discredited one. Before a shortened adaptation aired on BBC Two in 2017, it had already inspired controversy, despite proving reasonably even-handed in its treatment of the future king and his family.
As for many anti-monarchists’ chief concerns – the crown’s colonial role, the royals’ tangled personal lives, and even the imagery of an unelected family decked in copious amounts of gold – few are ever tackled headlong on the stage. In many ways, theatre remains, despite attempts to increase diversity and accessibility, a deeply conservative medium – but where other controversial topics are given at least a brief moment in the sun, republicanism seems to be the last great taboo on the West End and beyond.