THEATRE / The full house of Windsor: In fiction as in fact, members of the Royal Family have endured all manner of indignities. But, says Paul Taylor, things could be worse

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The Independent Culture
A byword for diligence in real life, Her Majesty the Queen has also been pursuing a punishing schedule in the world of fiction these last few years. In Adam Mars-Jones's story, 'Hoosh-Mi', the poor woman contracted rabies from an infected corgi, raved with hydrophobic frenzy and died. The same year, 1981, she suffered the scarcely less distressing fate of being bundled into the heroic couplets of Clive James in his mock epic Charles's Charming Challenges on the Way to the Throne. And in Thomas Bernhard's biliously funny play Elizabeth II, which is set during the Queen's first state visit to Austria in the early Sixties, a balcony of spectators collapsed, killing all of them, and only narrowly missing Her Majesty's motorcade.

It's no wonder, then, that Margaret 'We Are a Grandmother' Thatcher felt duty-bound to give her sovereign a woman-to-woman pep-talk on how to stop biting your nails during one of the Prime Ministerial audiences in Steve Nallon's 1989 spoof autobiography of the then Leaderene.

Indeed, even discounting appearances on Spitting Image and airhead fodder like Diana: Her Story, the House of Windsor would appear to be slowly catching up with the House of Atreus in terms of perceived dramatic potential. At the moment, there are two new plays on tour which focus on this family. Bound eventually for the Royal Court, The Queen and I is an adaptation by Sue Townsend of her best-selling novel which imagines the Windsors dispatched by a republican government to live in poverty on a Midlands council estate. Bound eventually for the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre, Snoo Wilson's two-hander, HRH, gives us an acid glimpse of the post-abdication life of Edward and Wallis Simpson, homing in on them during the war years when they were stranded in the Bahamas where he had been sent as Governor.

Handily, these plays exemplify the two broad approaches modern dramatists and novelists have taken when using the Windsors as imaginative material, and facilitate a broader discussion of what we learn, from seeing these folk in fiction, about our relationship with royalty. A kind of sitcom King Lear with the council estate a contemporary counterpart of the heath, The Queen and I is a fine example of the kind of work about royals that uses monarchy as a perspective from which to view social and political injustice.

Presenting the Windsors' life as a sort of Huis Clos with a spray-on of trashy glamour, HRH takes what one could describe as the ontological approach, fascinated, like Shakespeare's Richard II, by the being of the monarch and what happens to the man when the monarchy is taken away - or in Edward's case, as Wallis spitefully puts it, after 'throwing away a perfectly good crown'.

It's significant that neither play has a specifically republican axe to grind. Elizabeth II has yet, to my knowledge, to take a ride in a tumbrel or ascend a scaffold on our stages. Constitutional monarchy - which is described by the dastardly PM in Michael Dobbs' To Play the King as having 'all the menace and bite of a rubber duck' - doesn't seem to bring out the regicide in creative writers. It was, of course, a different story in the 17th century when plays deeply critical of the monarchy had to sneak past the censor in the thin disguise of an Italianised setting, or by being presented in code, like Middleton's A Game at Chess (1624).

True, the Lord Chamberlain banned in toto Edward Bond's Early Morning, the surreal 1968 drama which intimated a lesbian relationship between Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale, but that was in the same year as the Theatres Act which abolished stage censorship. Ironically, the play which caused the most fuss at Board level since then is Alan Bennett's A Question of Attribution (1989). The objection, though, to putting a living monarch on the boards of the Royal National Theatre was, you'd have thought, more than answered in this case by the way the cagey cat-and-mouse scene with Blunt allowed Her Majesty to display all the IQ and wit to which documentaries have clearly never done justice.

I put it to Max Stafford-Clark, the director of the Queen and I and someone closely involved in all the rewrites it has gone through, that the piece turns on the mischievous paradox of conscripting our reigning monarch to the republican cause. He says that, actually, the show is agnostic on that particular issue but that the attempt to show how the Queen is radicalised by her experience of poverty is more pointed in the stage version, which ends with her making a DIY alternative Christmas broadcast from the heart of the estate and does not have the escape clause that it was all just a bad dream she slept through on the night of the 1992 general election.

In art as in life, though, once you allow royalty on the scene, your priorities can go to pot. The estate, with its horrendous levels of unemployment, its gangs of lawless youths, and its spirit of skin-of-the-teeth survival, is meant to be the main subject, the Windsors providing the piquant perspective on it. Almost inevitably, though, this arrangement gets more than a trifle inverted. Pam Ferris's wonderfully funny and sympathetic Queen is a subtle as well as a slapstick portrait, showing you a lonely woman, repressed through training and office, for whom these new experiences are rather a liberating adventure. That they are also a political eye-opener for her, though blatantly the case, does not communicate itself to the pulses quite so well.

I'm coming close to claiming here that there's an inherent bias in (even unsympathetic) dramas and stories about monarchs that inclines them to the second, ontological approach. As Mars-Jones's 'Hoosh-Mi' dextrously demonstrates, the Queen is a tragi-comic incarnation of a fascinating metaphysical predicament, 'revered merely for being, which in itself deprives your actions of substance'. HRH explores the compelling unreality of this mascot role at one revealing remove, the abdicated Edward now the shadow of a shadow and Wallis the woman who 'woke up at the vital moment the Prince turned into a common old garden frog'.

The Queen and I certainly plays on the comforting belief that the monarch and the people are basically united in common decency, the wedge-driving bastards being our elected governors. Some of the appeal of Bennett's Madness of George III stems from this sense, too. In the televised version of Dobbs' To Play the King, Ian Richardson's poisonous PM even flirted with the camera during his asides in a manner that recalled Olivier's Richard III, as though conceitedly signalling that he, a commoner, had usurped the once-royal role of evil tyrant.

In Elizabeth II, the Windsors are vitriolically dismissed as 'dressing-up dolls for Burberry and Greenfell, with their stupid smiles and with their dogs . . . the whole brood is frightful'. The author, though, was Austrian and it's interesting that - despite the 'annus horribilis' and the dreadful press of the recent past - outright hostility towards them has yet to reach the theatre. Perhaps some interested group should offer a prize for the first properly republican play about the Windsors. How deeply monarchy is embedded in our language and culture, though, can be seen from the fact that even a play advocating regicide would still earn its author royalties.

'The Queen and I' now touring, then at the Royal Court Theatre, SW1, from 7 June (071-730 1745); 'HRH', at Glasgow Citizens' Theatre from 3 May (041-429 0022)

(Photograph omitted)

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