The Future is Another Country

Since 1688, when the Catholic King James II was overthrown in favour of William of Orange, Britain has had a monarchy whose powers have been constrained by public consent. That has proved a jolly good inoculation against revolutions and other excitements. But it is also raises questions about the unwritten limits of the Crown’s powers, a question that drives the thoroughly improbable yet enjoyable action of King Charles III. Mike Bartlett, who gave us one of those doom-laden climate-change numbers with Earthquakes in London, has another bash at futurology, albeit in more jocular fashion, at London’s Almeida.

We begin with Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith) as a splendidly finger-twiddling, anxious old-new monarch, fretting over how to step into Mummy’s shoes, while haunted by ghostly apparitions of Diana, who pops up in a black veil to advise various male members of the House of Windsor that they could be the greatest king the country has ever had.

These entertaining “what ifs” are niftily written in Shakespearean blank verse, with echoes of Macbeth‘s tale of twisted ambition interlaced with present-day royal conundrums. Camilla (Margot Leicester) lurks at the side of the action like one of the Bard’s fretful matriarchs. The Duchess of Cambridge’s charm and ambition are captured in a brilliantly sly performance by Lydia Wilson, all teetering court-shoes, glossily tossed locks and a steely sway over an uncertain William (Oliver Chris).

The broadest source of comedy is, of course, Prince Harry (Richard Goulding), a lost playboy who falls in love with Jess (Tafline Steen), one of those bog standard teenagers whom directors cast in bovver boots and glottal stops to tell the stupid adults how the world really ought to be run. How we love them.

I hate to come over all F.R. Leavis about this, but there is a credibility “ishoo” around Harry, as Jess might put it. The real thing is now approaching 30 years old. We are told the Queen reigned for around 70 years and the post-Leveson framing of the plot about the press still refusing to behave as politicians would wish suggests we must be a few years down the line from present upheavals.

This would make Harry the oldest confused teenager in town, seeing as he is already too old for the role of feckless clubber. Bartlett indulges the hoary middle-class fantasy that the younger royals are unhappy with their lot and would rather be normal. You think?

“We went to, like, Sainsbury’s,” says Harry dreamily of his first date with Jess. We can safely say he’d prefer a party-tastic Sloane and a night at Sandringham.

If the royal caricatures get a bit wearing, Bartlett’s projection of future political leaders is as well-judged as such political astrology can be. On this showing Ed Miliband’s successor is a classless Welsh chap called Evans, who holds the monarchy in barely-concealed contempt and presumes to tell a testy Charles how to conduct a weekly audience. The silky, scheming Tory is a dead ringer for the lugubrious Philip Hammond — not an altogether unrealistic prospect.

The King refuses royal assent to a bill gagging the press, setting himself on a collision course with parliament. Stranger things have happened down at the palace.
While the Almeida wanted us to fix our sights on future constitutional clashes, a revival of Another Country at the increasingly impressive Trafalgar Studios sent us hurtling back in time to the era just before the Abdication and a hothouse of a public school where beatings and bullying are rife and homosexuality is repressed in theory but abundant in practice.

It is hard to improve on the Eighties version of Julian Mitchell’s dramatic re-creation of the schooling and social attitudes that might have produced the Cambridge ring of self-hating spies. Memories of Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh and Daniel Day-Lewis as unlovable but pitiful youths are hard to compete against.

In this Chichester Festival Theatre production, three decades on, the action is brisk, the world that of arcane clubs, self-advancement and adults who are either airily absent or downright exploitative.

Rob Callender gives a commanding performance as Guy Bennett, based on the young Guy Burgess, a blend of sexual chutzpah and golden self-certainty, masking a tortured recognition that his sexuality will always condemn him to the outer edges of good society.

It is harder for contemporary audiences to warm to his sternly Marxist friend Tommy (Will Attenborough) than in the more divided ideological climate of the early Eighties, though the boy’s meditations on the expansive glories of the Soviet system have an eerie echo as Moscow cracks the whip once again in Ukraine.

Perhaps it is too easy for today’s audiences to tut and shake their heads at the barbarism of the prewar public school system. Yet the panic of the opening scenes, with the school in uproar over the disclosure of a liaison between a master and a pupil, reminded me of the terror that still stalks public schools when something reputation-affecting occurs.

When one of the school’s celebrated alumni (Julian Wadham) shows up to patronise the boys and generally show off his existence as an out-and-proud Bloomsbury aesthete, the moral dilemma presents itself rather differently to the simple requirement of sexual tolerance.

To the young Bennett, the louche visitor is a sign that gay life can be lived openly and his invitation to “bring a friend” to one of his parties a moment of seedy promise. In the post-Savile climate, that sends a potent shudder down the spine.

Prejudices shift: but so, more subtly, do the parameters of acceptability about sex and the borderline between freedom and exploitation. To that extent, Another Country is as much a play about the attitudes of Eighties as it is about the Thirties. It’s also hard to ignore a streak of excuse-making about the betrayals committed by Blunt, Burgess et al.

Even if boarding school horrors played their part in deforming character, Ben Macintyre’s excellent new book on Kim Philby reminds us that it was repeated adult calculation that drove them to send other, far less privileged people to their deaths for motives more informed by resentment than conviction. It’s stretching matters to blame the Upper Fourth for that.

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