(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/9; via Pam Green; Photo: Marion Bailey as the Queen in Handbagged at the Tricycle theatre (now the Kiln), London, in 2013. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian.)
The monarch was sympathetically depicted by dramatists and at a 1999 production of Oklahoma! her eyes lit up when she recalled her own theatrical outings
“I’ve never been fond of the theatre.” So says Q (an older Queen Elizabeth II) in Moira Buffini’s Handbagged. Two things strike me about that statement: we have no idea if it is true and, if it is, the sentiment is certainly not reciprocated. Looking back at theatre over the last four decades, it is fascinating to see how often the late Queen was portrayed on the British stage and how sympathetically she was seen in contrast to the passing parade of politicians.
In Shakespearean drama monarchy is often equated with solitude. Richard II is aware of the vanity of ceremony and achingly cries that a king “needs friends”. Henry IV is racked by guilt and even Henry V, on the eve of Agincourt, dwells on the tragic isolation of kingship.
And it’s not just in Shakespeare. Elizabeth I in Schiller’s Mary Stuart is haunted by the responsibility for the death of her cousin, and Philip II in Don Carlos ruminates on filial treachery. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown: it is a constant theme of world drama.
Even in the age of constitutional monarchy, that strain recurs. What is more striking is the way Elizabeth II was often seen as a repository of quiet wisdom. The first dramatist to treat her seriously was Alan Bennett in A Question of Attribution at the National Theatre in 1988. In one scene the monarch (played by Prunella Scales) confronts Anthony Blunt, who was both surveyor of the Queen’s pictures and a Communist spy.
With canny skill, she steers Blunt on to the subject of artistic forgery and suggests that it may sometimes be better not to express doubts about a painting’s provenance: “Stick to the official attribution rather than let the cat out of the bag and say, ‘Here we have a fake.’” Which is exactly what the monarchy did with the perfidious Blunt.
The scene is obviously Bennett’s invention but the Queen’s public reticence gives the dramatist poetic licence. That ability to recreate Elizabeth II on one’s own terms was exploited to great effect by Sue Townsend in her bestselling book and subsequent 1994 play, The Queen and I. Townsend’s premise was that, in a new republic, the whole Royal family had been transplanted to a Leicester housing estate. The play was clearly an attack on a world of inherited privilege. Yet even here the Queen emerged, in Pam Ferris’s performance, as a likable figure liberated from a world of cosseted ritual and able to discover her hidden talents.