By republican appointment

Republicanism is alive and well and living in the theatre. But, argues Paul Taylor, the Royals have little to fear
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The Independent Culture
"What must I do to be taken seriously?" cries the Prince of Wales in the film version of Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III, "I tell you, sir, to be Prince of Wales is not a position. It is a predicament." Indeed you might be inclined to call the role its own occupational hazard, if the lack of a clear occupation weren't precisely the problem.

With the Premiere next week of Divine Right, a new stage play by Peter Whelan, the peculiar predicament of being Prince of Wales is given an intriguing twist. The action is set in 2001 in a Britain governed by "New" Labour. For reasons not unconnected (we're led to suppose) with his desire to remarry, Charles - who remains an off-stage character throughout - renounces his succession to the throne, thus depositing responsibility for the future of the monarchy on the shoulders of his barely 18-year- old first born son.

Readers of Kenneth Branagh's precocious autobiography, Beginning, will remember his formidably blush-making description of how, when he was preparing to play Henry V for the RSC, he went for a chat with Prince Charles in order to acquire some information from the horse's mouth about the pressures, self-suppressions and isolation entailed in being heir to the throne. Instinct with the unconscious comedy of sycophancy ("I felt an instant rapport. I had never experienced such an extraordinary and genuine humility"), the relevant passage does throw up one revealing moment when Branagh discusses with Charles a key scene from the play. "During the famous night-time sequence, [Henry] walks among his men in disguise. The experience is extremely unsatisfactory; he wants to be one of them, but he can't be; he wants them to understand his position but they resist it. Had Prince Charles ever felt like doing the same? Yes, while he was at Cambridge he'd attempted to do the same thing but the results were disastrous."

Before he makes a decision about whether to accept the succession in Divine Right, it just so happens that Whelan's Prince William succeeds in giving his detective the slip and in heading off on just such an incognito adventure into those areas of England that are a foreign country to its future king. With implicit reference to Henry V, the play arranges some nicely barbed ironies. Where the disguised Henry is dismayed when he discovers that the common soldiers are sceptical about the king and his cause, this pattern is reversed in one of Whelan's episodes. The disguised Prince, sporting a bomber jacket and an accent picked up from EastEnders, is appalled to find the most aggressively staunch support for royalty in a couple of crop-haired, mindless fascist yobs in combat gear who believe "There ain't no black in the Union Jack!" In fact, the only time William gets beaten up on his travels is when, in a ruefully self-referring aside, he remarks in front of this pair that the Prince "really is stupid".

Divine Right is avowedly Republican in spirit and intent. Interspersed with the episodes depicting the Prince's crash course in underling life are scenes set in the House of Commons and at private meetings of members of the touchily all-party Republican movement, which highlight the differing motives and objectives that can bring, say, a rich New Tory of working class origins under the same banner as a principled female Labour MP who feels that her party isn't sufficiently distinguishable from the opposition. Arguments over the role and function of a President are valuably aired. But it's significant that, like The Queen and I, the Sue Townsend play with which Out of Joint had a great success a couple of years back, Divine Right is a Republican play that turns on the mischievous paradox of conscripting a royal to its cause. Shaw's Apple Cart offers a precedent for this when its monarch, King Magnus, steals the initiative from the democratic government that wants to reduce him to a cipher by threatening to abdicate and lead a rival political party in the Commons.

In The Queen and I, an already elected Republican government has dispatched the royal family to live in poverty on a Midlands council estate. With its horrendous levels of unemployment, its gangs of lawless youths and its spirit of skin-of-the-teeth survival, the estate is meant, in theory, to be the central concern, the dethroned Windsors our piquant perspective on it. It is, however, virtually a law of the theatre that monarchy upstages whatever it comes near; it will be interesting to see how Bill Alexander's production of Divine Right guards against this happening in the scenes with the Prince. After all, the heath may radicalise King Lear, but it's King Lear, not the needy, who remains the focus of attention and when Jude Kelly's recent production tried to offset this by having a large group of the destitute follow the mad monarch about like a silent chorus, you felt irritation rather than compassion.

Sue Townsend is a self-proclaimed Republican. In an article entitled "Do You Believe In Fairies?" she referred - with calculated lese-majeste - to the then topical incident of Prince William being hit by a golf club. "Has the boy been examined carefully," she asked, recalling how close we came to being ruled by Hitler's chum, the Duke of Windsor, "or will he too have to be siphoned away at some point in the future?" All the same, The Queen and I comes close to suggesting that what every council estate needs is an on-site Windsor to give it lessons in initiative and resource. There is no sign, in the play, that the Republican government has lifted a finger to alter the status quo. So it is left to the Queen, after her hilarious brush with an assertiveness training class, to raise the consciousness of the proles in a climactic alternative Christmas broadcast from the estate.

Besides - and this is revealingly the case with much drama about royals, from Richard II to HRH, Snoo Wilson's recent caustic look at the post- abdication life of Edward and Wallis Simpson - what the royals represent politically tends to become subordinate to the question of what it feels like to be in their weird existential plight. Adam Mars-Jones's brilliant short story, "Hoosh-mi", in which the Queen contracts rabies from an infected corgi, presents Her Majesty as the tragicomic incarnation of a fascinating metaphysical predicament, a being "revered merely for being, which in itself deprives your actions of substance". Or revered, as The Madness of George III suggests, for "seeming" (monarchy as inherently performance). Recovering from his illness, George is told "Your Majesty seems more yourself", to which he replies, giving an uncomfortably literal twist to that comforting cliche, "I have always been myself, even when I was ill. Only now I seem myself. That's the important thing. I have remembered how to seem."

Divine Right keeps all the rest of the gang (Diana, the Queen et al) off stage, with the exception of William's brother who helps him in his escape. This results in both a simplification of the picture (surely Diana would be exerting vast influence?) and a sympathy-enhancing sense that the Prince grapples in isolation with (and makes his own mind up on) the big questions: "Can doing this job be beneficial to anyone when all we are is joke fodder for every newspaper and TV stand-up comic? And secondly, is it humanly possible to do it now it's open season on our private lives?"

By an irony of scheduling, another English Prince of Wales hits the stage this week, when the National premieres Tony Harrison's The Prince's Play, an update of Le Roi s'amuse, the Victor Hugo drama that was the basis of Verdi's Rigoletto. Recounting the imaginary tale of Francis I's seduction of the daughter of his jester Triboulet, the play fell foul of the counter- revolutionary censorship in the Paris of 1832 and was not revived for 50 years after its first performance. Harrison translates the action to Victorian England; the jester becomes Scotty Scott, a music hall comedian and Francis I switches to the future Edward VII presiding over a court where the royal lust is pandered to for preferment or pardon. "My reprieve and pardon were a prince's plan/ to drag my daughter to his soiled divan," wails Lord Kintyre.

The exigencies of the story don't leave much room for glimpses into this Prince of Wales's ontological plight nor for a rehearsal of the mitigating circumstances of his upbringing. For once, you're allowed to feel the full pernicious blast of corrupt privilege. The fact that this can be staged at the Royal National Theatre would be grist to the mill of a defender of the monarchy such as Charles Moore, who once pointed out that the Charter 88 debate on this institution tellingly took place in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre. One should not forget, though, the initial difficulties Richard Eyre experienced at board level when trying to programme Alan Bennett's A Question of Attribution which (flatteringly) showed the reigning monarch in a cagey cat-and-mouse game with Anthony Blunt.

As it happens, Peter Whelan, whose Divine Right is being produced at the Birmingham Rep, has another play in rehearsal at the moment with the Royal Shakespeare Company (President: Prince Charles). Could this outfit have brought itself to help Whelan to earn royalties from a republican drama, you wonder? True, in daring to lay out his future for the young prince, Whelan's play is as presumptuous as we all feel we've a right to be when speculating and fantasising about the royal family. But if the real-life William were to give his detectives the slip and attend a performance at Birmingham incognito, what he saw would do more for his self-esteem, you guess, than watching, say, the video of his mother's Panorama interview.

n 'The Prince's Play', now previewing, opens Friday, Royal National Theatre (0171-928 2252). 'Divine Right' opens Friday, Birmingham Rep (0121-236 4455)