“Handbagged” by “King Charles III” or It’s All In The Premise


Political Gabfesters
Political Gabfesters

This post was nearly lost in my inertia.  We saw two plays in quite quick succession late last year – already referring to 2015 as last year seems quite scary – and although I began a draft I lost my enthusiasm primarily as I didn’t feel up to the intellectual struggle of saying something constructive.  However these things have a way of coming back up when the time is right.  Generally one needs a “hook” to hang them on and in this case I was listening to the Slate’s Political Gabfest today on my early morning walk around Bath which I had been missing for the last few days awing to excessive wind and rain when the participants embarked on their “Cocktail Chatter”.  This is the closing segment in which each contributor retails some little piece of chatter that they might engage in at a cocktail party.

On this occasion David Plotz, the chair of the podcast and former editor of Slate, now at Atlas Obscura, wanted to offer a little rave about a new TV series that he was watching on Netflix (in the US) which you can see on More4 here under the new “Walter Presents” rubric (maybe something on that another time) entitled “Occupied“.  Now here is the trigger.  He briefly explained to the others who were not aware of the show the premise that, in a near future, Norway had, under a Green Government, unilaterally cut off supplies of Oil and Gas to its customers such as the countries of the EU and as a consequence been “occupied” by the Russians.  The action centres on the PM, the Russian ambassador, a journalist and a secret service officer.  His comment was something like, “but don’t worry about the premise because it’s really great, imagine a cross between ‘Borgen‘ and ‘Homeland‘.”

So here is my “hook”, because we were watching “Occupied” and gave up precisely because the premise was so implausible.  Let’s get this into perspective:

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in 2012 over 64% of world oil production came from the top ten countries: Russia 544 Mt (13%), Saudi Arabia 520 Mt (13%), United States 387 Mt (9%), China 206 Mt (5%), Iran 186 Mt (4%), Canada 182 Mt (4%), United Arab Emirates 163 Mt (4%), Venezuela 162 Mt (4%), Kuwait 152 Mt (4%) and Iraq 148 Mt (4%). Total oil production was 4,142 Mt, up 3% from 4,011 Mt the previous year“.

Hmm… where is Norway in that list.  Well, actually it comes in at 15th.  You can cross-check that here.  The thing is that “Borgen” is plausible, it is about a woman politician who becomes PM of Denmark.  Even “Homeland” has a “Manchurian Candidate” essence of plausibility.  But “Occupied” – nope; and this is the most important point, that no matter how well the production is executed, how good it looks, how well acted and so on, if the basic premise is not well founded we cannot suspend disbelief and allow ourselves to be swept along with it.  No country, not even Russia under Putin, is going to occupy Norway because they choose to sacrifice their oil and gas revenue.

The Man Who Would Be King
The Man Who Would Be King

This brings me, finally, back to the two plays, both of which we saw at the good, old Theatre Royal here in Bath.  The first was “King Charles III”, a play in blank verse by Mike Bartlett about which I had strong misgivings owing to its central premise.  Now, at this point, I am going to have to interpolate that as I usually do, I have just done a bit of Googling around the topic and skimmed a few reviews as a reality check, and what I found almost immediately was this from the Guardian’s theatre critic, Michael Billington, from April 2014:

If I question the play’s premise, it is for this reason. Although, as Prince of Wales, he has been famous for writing to ministers and scrutinising legislation, I cannot believe that within a month of becoming king Charles would be so naive as to seek to block a parliamentary bill. It is also a weakness that Bartlett never give any details of the proposed press regulation. But, once we are past these hurdles, the action acquires an unstoppable momentum. There is also a what-if fascination to seeing how a future king might exercise long-dormant powers, invoke army support and leave the country bitterly divided.”

I probably couldn’t have put it better myself but I certainly arrived at the main point under my own steam.

Prince Harry - temporarily rebellious
Prince Harry – temporarily rebellious

There is a further difficulty with this play: the playwright has had to not only imagine possible future events but has had to extrapolate them from the imagined characters of protagonists who are real people, albeit some with popularly imagined character traits.  So he is able to posit the notion that Charles might wish to challenge aspects of contemporary culture, which is plausible, but still take a step too far in imagining that this would outweigh his natural respect for tradition, which is that Parliament is sovereign.  In the case of Prince Harry I think that he gets it wrong but I do like the echoes of Hal in Henry IV in Harry’s slumming it with a working class girl but being brought sharply back into the royal fold with a bit of discrete blackmail from William and Kate.  The most troublesome for me was the suggestion that and the Duchess of Cambridge could be concealing an underlying Machiavellian nature that leads her to play an almost Lady Macbethian role in steeling William to the action that he does eventually take.  One might say that these imagined natures grew out of the needs of the plot rather than the plot from their natures.

An awkward moment - of many
An awkward moment – of many

In contrast, Moira Buffini’s utterly delightful “Handbagged” takes two very high profile public figures, the Queen and Margaret Thatcher, and imagines the conversations that they might have had at their regular meetings at Buckingham Palace.  Why is Buffini on safe ground here?  It is because we know they did indeed meet regularly and also because of the events that are brought back to us.  They are, especially for those of us of an older persuasion, part of our lives.  We know all about the miners’ strike and the Falklands War, for example.  We know about the Poll Tax and the Iron Lady’s eventual demise and what is so amusing is the way in which the playwright channels what we popularly think that the Queen and Mrs Thatcher are and were like and how they would have reacted to and spoken about those events.  There is no premise to be implausible about and so we happily go along with the various barbed confrontations of the two “handbags”.

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