(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/4.)
As Hansard opens at the National Theatre and drama heats up in Westminster, our critic picks his favourite political theatre
- Coriolanus(1607) by William Shakespeare
Whose side is Shakespeare on? As always, it is difficult to tell. Coriolanus is an arrogant military patrician who proves indispensable to the state. The people’s tribunes have a legitimate grievance against a hero who has sanctioned civic starvation, while themselves being devious manipulators. Claimed as both an incitement to revolution and a piece of quasi-fascist hero-worship, the play is magnificently ambivalent.
- Fuenteovejuna(1619) by Lope de Vega
This is world drama’s “I am Spartacus” moment. When a brutally rapacious military commander is killed, the inhabitants of a Spanish village are tortured to disclose the name of his murderer. Their joint cry of “Fuenteovejuna did it” is a momentous tribute to the power of collective action. Yet Lope’s ultimate endorsement of monarchical authority suggests that even popular protest, here led by women, is tinged with historical irony.
- Mary Stuart(1800) by Friedrich Schiller
No one understood better than Schiller the devious machinations of politics. On the face of it this is a romantic tragedy about two warring queens, Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart. But the greatest scene shows Elizabeth beset by contradictory arguments about Mary’s fate. Some argue for execution, others for clemency, while Leicester ingeniously suggests that Mary should live “in the shadow of the axe”. This is power in action with each case reflecting the tactical acumen of the speaker.
Photo: The New York Times