If you have not yet realised you soon will do, this year marks the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. This will be marked in various ways. The BBC’s major contribution is a continuation of their stellar mini-series The Hollow Crown, adapting for television the history cycles. This year will allow audiences to see Benedict Cumberbatch take on the juicy role of Richard III following Ben Whishaw and Tom Hiddleston who played the leads in the first season. Over on Netflix a much more modern monarchy is being dramatised by playwright Peter Morgan in The Crown, starring Claire Foy as Britain’s current sovereign and former Doctor Who actor, Matt Smith, as Prince Phillip. Morgan’s recent play, The Audience, starred Helen Mirren and Kristin Scott Thomas in the 2013 and 2015 revivals respectively as Queen Elizabeth II and dramatised the interactions she may have had with her different Prime Ministers throughout her reign. Clearly kings and queens are the ‘in’ thing, both modern and old, and Shakespeare is in part to blame for this.
The Hollow Crown is one way in which Shakespeare’s fingerprints are very clearly seen on the image but it is worth taking a look at two plays which premiered in 2014. These two plays were arguably two of the best received plays of the year and were Rona Munro’s The James Plays, and Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III. One focusses on the old, one on the future. One on Scotland, the other on England. Both on the monarchy. And both have a distinct air of the old bard about them.
Rona Munro’s The James Plays are a trilogy telling the story of three Stewart monarchs who led Scotland in the fifteenth century and were performed as a joint venture by the National Theatre of Great Britain and the National Theatre of Scotland. James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock follows the poet King James I as he is released from English captivity to a Scotland he hardly knows and can hardly command. His efforts to assert himself as King of the Scots and try and make his Queen love him are the backbone to the first installment and Munro is able to mix a bit of lovely Braveheart language (‘I will prove to you by everything I do now… I am Scotland’) and courtly romance (‘I never thought I’d meet you. It was a dream. And then it was real’) to create a dynamic and mixed script.
The second installment, James II: Day of the Innocents, is perhaps the strongest of the three. The first act begins predominantly as flashback and introduces us to a King who has as many internal as external demons to fight with. As his father fought to be respected so must the son overcome his advisors: ‘My son will be a Prince. His father should be a King’ says Mary, the Queen. James II shows the difficulty of making those decisions a King has to make, especially when it concerns one’s friends. These difficulties come out in the narrative but Munro also uses a potent motif of the Bull-Headed Man, a personification of the titular character’s nightmares which haunt his rule, to show a man wracked by his past and his mind; a modern monarch in an ancient kingdom.
Of course, we have a tendency to think that such things as mental instability should have been treated in drama better before the 20th century (and we are probably right) although it is worth remembering Shakespeare’s mentally unstable tragic royal bloods, Lear and Hamlet. And, although Shakespeare also creates some superb female characters in his histories (I am thinking primarily of Richard III here), they are often, in line with the time, a very masculine affair. So, as James II turns its attention to the fractured mind of its king, so James III: The True Mirror, the third installment, focusses its eye on the women in the court. It does this to the extent that, in the way that Prince Hal is the main character in Henry IV, Queen Margaret (played by The Killing’s Sofie Gråbøl) is the main character of James III. She is the sensible mind that understands the necessaries of rule in contrast to her husband who would be all too happy to ‘Let England eat us and get it over with’. Whilst his disgust at the fact his wife’s dowry was ‘Orkney and fucking Shetland!’ is quite funny, the narrative of the male monarch who can do what he wants whilst his wife saves him is the tragedy of too many stories and it is nice to see Munro use it in this triumphant narrative of medieval Scottish history which allows those behind the throne as much of a voice as those on it. The Telegraph suggested that the trilogy was ‘better than Shakespeare’ when it was first performed so perhaps Scottish monarchical history is getting the dramatic treatment it deserves.
Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III is a different beast altogether. Whilst also being a modern ‘history’ play (albeit a future history), as if to counter its modern concern and subject matter, the style is like that of a Shakespeare. The structure made up of five acts and the dialogue is written in iambic pentameter verse. This conceit works very well and Bartlett has fun playing with Shakespearean tropes like verse soliloquies and ghostly apparitions. Although, a ghostly apparition telling both Charles and William they will be the greatest King, whilst a nice nod to Hamlet and Macbeth, certainly pushes what might be deemed appropriate. But, this is not a play that is attempting to celebrate the monarchy, in case the title did not give it away. This is a clever look at the monarchy and has superbly imagined cast. Kate as a subversive power player, Harry as the Prince torn between love and duty, Charles as the troubled new monarch.
The narrative follows Charles’ attempt to halt a bill that regulates the press tying it to very prescient concerns and follows our perception that if any monarch is going to tamper with the status quo, it will be Charles, an idea that worked very well in the second series of the original House of Cards. But, whereas the politics was the focus there, here the draw is first and foremost towards the characters, Charles in particular. If we assume Charles is a meddling monarch, doesn’t the British public also assume that William would be a better King? It is also this idea that King Charles III plays on because as the narrative progresses, William eclipses the new King much in the same way ‘Kate and Wills’ possibly already have. As students of St Andrews we know this as well as anyone. Charles sums it up well:
‘Two thrones, two crowns, it is not possible
For Britain and the Commonwealth to have
As you suggest two kings in tandem rule.’
We can argue forever about whether the monarchy is relevant today. We can debate until sundown whether it serves any purpose. We can shout all we like about whether it is a waste of British taxpayers’ money. What is obvious though is that there is a strange fascination we have with it and the characters that have played a part of it; Scottish or English; historical, contemporary or future. I think it is also clear that the legacy of Shakespeare permeates the way the monarchy has been presented on the stage as both award winning productions owe a lot of their origin to the bard. And, the stage is, after all, the best place for dramatising the monarchy; it is all about the performance.
Both plays will go on tour later this year.