Britain: A society that can enact its liberal values on stage

  • Updated: Jan 11, 2015 01:39 IST

If a play can prove that Britain is a truly exceptional country from which we have a lot to learn then I believe I saw it last week in London. It’s called King Charles III and it’s a delightful, if contentious, flight of imagination about what could happen when the present Prince of Wales succeeds his mother. It’s playing to packed houses at London’s Wyndham’s theatre.

First, the ‘facts’. The play begins with the funeral obsequies following the death of Queen Elizabeth. Charles, the new King, is torn between his duty to preserve the monarchy and his personal sense of commitment to uphold Britain’s democracy when the incumbent Labour government passes a bill effectively throttling the free press and, thus, undermining freedom of expression. King Charles refuses to sign and asks the Prime Minister to reconsider. But the prime minister digs in his heels and secures the support of the Conservative opposition, thus presenting the monarch with a united House of Commons behind the bill.

At this point a conventional monarch would have accepted the will of parliament and signed the bill into law, even if reluctantly. Charles, however, acts very differently. Citing an ancient medieval prerogative of the British monarch, he enters parliament and orders the Speaker to dissolve the House. A fresh election, he believes, will sort out the dispute between the government and the monarch.

Though technically dissolved, MPs refuse to vacate the House of Commons and insist on functioning as if parliament is still effective. As a result, parliament and monarch are locked in irresolvable conflict. The British constitution is under the worst possible strain.

The monarch, surrounded by his family, plans to address the nation to explain the steps he has taken. He believes this will be his coup de grace. However, this is the point when Prince William, the new Prince of Wales, steps into the picture. Encouraged by his wife Kate and with the support of the Prime Minister he manipulates the situation. Swiftly but secretly he decides to speak first and announces his father’s abdication. Then he signs the impugned bill into law.

Thus ends the controversy Charles created. The longevity of the monarchy is ensured. The will of parliament remains supreme. The conflict between Crown and Commons is averted.

Now why does all of this prove Britain is exceptional? Because in no other kingdom would you see a play that starts with the reigning monarch’s death. Where audiences flock to witness the heir-apparent fail as king. Where the heir-presumptive connives to replace his father to hurrahs from both the people and parliament.

Remember, the story is fiction but the characters are real. This play is an attempt to predict the future. And that future shows how King Charles, though well-meaning, could be a disaster. That William, though well-intentioned, is capable of virtual regicide and, worse, controlled by his wife.

Finally, but most strikingly, the play revolves around the anguish and, later, the mental collapse of Charles as a person. Other than Britain, would any other monarchy accept this as legitimate — in fact popular — entertainment?

In India anything similar would be censored. Protestors would burn the theatre and lynch the actors. Politicians would scream treason. The press would cry blue murder.

In Britain it’s a roaring success. The play is sold out but no one has changed their opinion of Charles or William and certainly not of the monarchy. It’s seen and accepted simply as a play. And that’s it.

The views expressed by the author are personal

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