Theatre; Divine Right Birmingham Rep

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The Independent Culture
Well, bang goes the chance of a CBE for either Peter Whelan or Bill Alexander. The dramatist and the director are to be honoured, though, for mounting Divine Right. Avowedly republican and much in the mould of the David Hare trilogy, this is an epic state-of-the-nation play which projects us forward to the year 2000 and to a scenario in which the monarchy effectively puts an end to itself, rather to the embarrassment of Paul Connolly's deliciously Blair-like Labour prime minister. Prince Charles renounces the succession in order to remarry, while his son William declines to become heir apparent, after giving his minders the slip and travelling in disguise, Henry V-style, among those for whom England is a far from green or pleasant land.

It's a flawed piece but a genuinely provocative one, not least because it would be quite possible, paradoxically, to emerge feeling slightly less of a republican than you did at the start. The play ends with the passing of a bill which transfers the constitutional powers of the monarch to a "Parliamentary head of state", ie one put forward by the government of the day. This sharply dismays the character who comes nearest to functioning as Whelan's representative, the forthright, Clare Short-like Labour MP, Jo Benyon (Mary Jo Randle). What is perceived by others as the danger of a popularly elected President (power independent of the PM) she sees as precisely the virtue of such a figure: removal of the vicious circle whereby governmental corruption can only be investigated at the behest of the prime minister. Accordingly, the mood at the close is pensive and non-triumphalist, the children's voices intoning "Jerusalem" striking an ironic discord with Jo's brooding disappointment.

But the play is admirably honest about the divided, not always laudable, motives of its unstable all-party republican movement. And if, in a stingingly sardonic scene, it shows the disguised prince being duffed up for lese- majeste by a couple of skinheads whose patriotic royalism is just a fig- leaf for violent racism, it also admits that a different branch of the far right is trying to hijack the republican cause in the hope of installing a dictator. There's a joke, at one point, about Thatcher returning as president: "she wouldn't accept anything less than the crown." But surely in a case like hers, of a party leader being booted out while still in No 10, the temptation to exercise the technical right of carrying on as prime minister would be greater if the head of state were either a PM appointee or in a position no less dependent on the ballot box. A hypothetical situation, maybe, but pondering it certainly makes hereditary monarchy seem a touch more appetising.

The heart of the play is William Mannering's deeply affecting Prince William. The irony of republican plays which turn on the conscription of royalty to their cause is something I've often written about, so I'll only add here that Mannering pulls you right inside the prince's struggle and growing resolve. The scenes between him and his brother (Christopher Trezise) are written and acted with great sympathy of imagination as they present the mutual protectiveness of two young men wistfully aware that they occupy the same rather specialised category of loneliness.

To 11 May, Birmingham Rep (0121-236 4455)

Apologies to Tim Healy, whose performance I misattributed to another actor in yesterday's review of Twelve Angry Men.

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