Arts and media scheduling is becoming something of an art in itself. St. George's Day saw not only the transmission of the first part of ITV's family documentary Edward On Edward, but also the première of Peter Whelan's "whither the monarchy?" play Divine Right, under the direction of his regular stage associate Bill Alexander in Birmingham.
Speculative near-future dramas are more customarily the fare of television than of theatre, and Whelan's twin plot strands set in the year 2000 would sit well on the small screen. We alternately follow the fortunes of a cross-party Commons republican pressure group led by a hard-left female Labour democrat and a shrewd new-right Tory meritocrat (an unlikely couple who, as Whelan underlines several times, are bedfellows only in the figurative sense) and those of the Prince of Wales's eldest son who, before deciding whether to accept the right of succession renounced by his father, goes AWOL in disguise to peer into the lives of ordinary folk. The Prince is unnamed, but the production's promotional image is the Eton photograph of Prince William.
Like Whelan's last theatre work The School Of Night, this is a play of ideas, which sometimes poke out like bones through the skin in a nasty fracture: the politicos and the Prince get set-piece speeches, and the chief of a police riot squad pops out of nowhere to muse on the sociology of policing. A number of aperçus are blatantly shoe-horned into dialogue, such as "The 'royal manner' is a kind of schizophrenia." At times it threatens to become a dramatised essay on the constitutional and metaphysical relationships between the Crown and the nation, in both the political and personal senses of the terms.
These points notwithstanding, the play has its sights set on a wide audience. The Commons exchanges between a Blairesque Labour premier and a Portillonian Opposition leader are written and staged with mordant observation for an audience now as familiar with such events as with any other televised comedy-drama. The central conceit, too, has the reassuring lineage of Henry V and The Prince And The Pauper – although just how William Mannering's (normally too crisply spoken) Prince learned to pass himself off in broad estuary English remains an enigma. Alexander's staging and Kit Surrey's design are also really rather flash: as the House convenes above the main stage, trucks roll on and off to set scenes everywhere from a TV studio (complete with working camera and video monitors) to a derelict haulage container used as a kip by a pair of unsavoury neo-skinheads.
Of the players, Ian Gelder and Mary Jo Randle as the maverick politicians spark as much as parties to a Socratic dialogue can, and Joe Melia turns in an unshowy performance as their Anglo-Irish millionaire paymaster. Leo Wringer amuses himself and us as (by turns) a Paxman-like television rottweiler, a dreadlocked Wembley Stadium under-manager and a Nigerian all-night storekeeper; William Mannering will be noticed, although more for his role as the Prince than his performance in it.
The play is unexceptional and clunky in its attempts to claim both broad and elevated appeal, but the production and circumstances in the wider world combine to give it a surprising degree of success. Alexander protests that when he commissioned the play he had no idea it would turn out to be so topical, but he realises it now. I suspect a screen version beckons.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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