The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s Royal tour of India and Bhutan has dominated our news headlines this week. Certainly, the tour is a colorful display; worth a look as we, at home, splosh through a showery April. All has been impeccably planned and well choreographed; the organizers should be very pleased (we’re not hearing the wrinkles and rankles). Scrutinized and photographed every step of the way, William and Kate have delivered a very polished performance; as though they were born for the job.
We are most used to viewing our Sovereign Family through a photographic lens. Today the Royal press pack with their high-tech cameras and very accomplished hands deliver regal refinement; posed, cropped, photoshopped – for our daily consumption .
But these perfected photographic representations give us only a one-dimensional view; they are all about a look in a moment. This works well for voracious media producers in need of a quick illustration but for richer contemplation, for character and story and purpose, we need to search elsewhere.
For representations of kingship past and present, it’s to the theatre we must go:
Shakespeare. Yes he’s an obvious start. But few other playwrights have made so many attempts to get under the skin of what it is to be King. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” (King Henry IV).
This year to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the RSC has been performing King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings – the complete plays of Richard II, Henry IV Parts I & II and Henry V. This means watching 4 plays in 3 days! This ambitious boxset of Shakespeare has reviewed well. “You feel, by the end, that you have lived a bit of history, but the whole production is marked by a wonderful lightness, an atmospherical story-telling, that makes it never feel too worthy”. Ann Treneman, The Times
For another American view and an academic interpretation of these plays, try this lecture series.
Modelled on Shakespeare’s history plays and written in iambic pentameter, writer Mike Bartlett imagined the near future with this look at Prince Charles’ ascension to the throne; King Charles III (Play of the Year, 2015). See the trailer.
The Queen is dead. Having waited a lifetime to fulfil his destiny, Prince Charles ascends the throne with Camilla by his side. As William, Kate and Harry look on, Charles wrestles with his new responsibilities…but how to rule?
Directed by the Almeida Theatre’s artistic director Rupert Goold, this play explores the people underneath the crowns, the unwritten rules of our democracy, and the conscience of Britain’s most famous family.(http://kingcharles3play.co.uk)
The British press reviewers loved this exploration for it’s studied and politically thoughtful act of lese-majeste (a violation of royalty) and look at the meaning of being Royal in a diverse, modern Britain.
A Britain and Royal life very different to the one portrayed by Dame Helen Mirren and more recently Kristen Scott Thomas in the critically acclaimed, The Audience.
This play imagines a series of critical meetings between various UK prime ministers and the Queen over her 60-year reign. Prime ministers from Churchill to Cameron use their private audiences with the monarch to confess their worries and talk through the country’s problems. The writing here offers us glimpses of who the Queen might be but it’s the recall of history through our political leaders that grabs more. (The Guardian review)
Our current Queen’s long reign has been documented in various forms along the way; from sympathetic and adoring to a bit more questioning and progressive (but never really republican…)
Watch: Our Queen at 90 (documentary) still available on the itv hub. There have been several TV docs over the years, mostly sympathetic (…sycophantic) or to further a personal interest/ pet project. None will agree to appear in a more challenging format. More press release then than personal insight.
Read: There are many books out there about the Queen that explore everything from her marriage, to her wardrobe, to the diamonds on her crown and the content of her handbag. Perhaps though the most enjoyable reads are those that avoid the reality to give us a more imagined view – In The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett – the Queen discovers the joy of literature whilst in The Queen and I, Sue Townsend, the royal family are transported to a housing estate in Leicester in 1992 for a comment on how birth defines us, still.
Listen: 21st century mythologies. Writer and critic Peter Conrad considers Her Majesty the Queen as (a rather bland) role model. Or for something more cheery, a collection of anecdotes from royal walkabouts in, And then the Queen said… (BBC Radio 4)
Royal Portraiture: Surely we can find more here (than photography) about the Royal personality? Unlike the press photographer, an artist has time with the sitter to know them, to glimpse them, to hear what’s within. Commissioned artwork of royalty (and important leaders) have been a feature of public life since Egyptian times. (The Tudors were perhaps gave the most prolific though, a ban on religious art and a desire to show authority gave German artist Hans Holbein work for life. See also this interesting article on a new Elizabeth I finding). Cecil Beaton’s (photography as art) studies of The Queen are probably the most highly regarded of her reign. Now modern day artists bring their interpretations to the study, but tricky for them, each unveiling brings with it a release of comment and opinion. It seems we all have a view (whether previously articulated or not) on the sitter and if the artist hasn’t captured what we see (from our blinkered view) then the criticism can be rather stinging…
So why is it so hard to capture the Royals with any sincerity? Perhaps, because in our modern age, they are a “brand”. Carefully stage-managed, craftfully orchestrated, airbrushed to perfection. As heavily edited as a celebrity Instagram snap.
So it’s arguably in the written work we find the most interesting consideration of a royal life. There may be thousands of Royal images at our fingertips but we really don’t know the Family at all. Their regal inner selves remain carefully guarded or perhaps the old religious belief is true; photos really do steal the soul.
Featured Photo – The Mirror