[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/33111?ns=guardian&pageName=Should+the+Queen%27s+speech+get+an+Olivier+award%3F%3AArticle%3A1306938&ch=Stage&c3=GU.co.uk&c4=Theatre%2CStage%2CCulture+section%2CQueen%27s+speech%2CPolitics&c6=John+M+Morrison&c7=09-Nov-18&c8=1306938&c9=Article&c10=Blogpost&c11=Stage&c13=&c25=Theatre+blog&c30=content&h2=GU%2FStage%2Fblog%2FTheatre+blog[/img]The state opening of parliament is a sublime theatrical event let down by a poor script. We need Alan Bennett on the case
Many people treat the annual state opening of parliament as just a piece of flummery – what Walter Bagehot called the "dignified" part of the constitution. But it's full of meaning if you watch it as a piece of theatre. (Of course, it's the same each year, but so is the Nutcracker.) I see it as a surprisingly radical dramatic experience in which good acting and direction are let down by a weak script. Offering a mixture of genres and styles, it's a site-specific work which breaks down the traditional barriers between performers and audience. As the MPs walk down the corridor to the Lords (a bit like moving from the Lyttelton to the Olivier), they are simultaneously spectators and participants. While the peers and the monarch occupy centre stage, the prime minister stands at the back in relative obscurity, like a playwright hiding behind a pillar on press night.
In the Palace of Westminster, as in the theatre, nothing is quite what it seems. We all know that the "ad libbed" joke by Dennis Skinner at the expense of Black Rod is scripted rather than spontaneous. At the start of the show the Queen arrives like Cinderella in her magic coach, beautifully costumed as if for panto at the Hackney Empire. Normally I'm not keen on a mixture of modern and period costumes, but in this show the combination of swords and suits works quite well. She is greeted by the Lord Chamberlain the Marquess of Cholmondeley, representing the dynastic element in the British theatrical tradition – a bit like the Redgraves. While not much of a fan of postmodern theatrical jokiness, I was won over this year by the witty choice of Baroness Royall to carry the Cap of Maintenance. In fact I found it hard to fault any of the cast; Baron Mandelson, recently returned from a long continental tour, has lost none of his ability to cast a spell as the cloaked stage villain.
One problem with site-specific theatre is that not all of the audience can see all of the action, although video technology can help solve the problem. The main audience in the Lords misses the thrilling moment of physical violence when Black Rod hammers on the door of the Commons chamber. As a one-time lobby correspondent I always savour this part of the play, and I was impressed by the perfect timing and aim of Sir Freddie Viggers, performing this difficult role for the first time. He may well be up for "best newcomer" when the awards season comes around. I must also highlight a flawless cameo by Jack Straw as the Lord Chancellor, walking effortlessly backwards down the steps of the dais. As fans of the legendary Richard Goolden used to say when he played Mole each Christmas, what a shame that this is likely to be his last ever performance.
But what a pity that this year's short and turgid script gave Her Majesty so little to get her dramatic teeth into. I was reminded of Felicity Kendal as Winnie in Happy Days, unable to move around the stage. "My government will reduce the budget deficit" is a line of Beckettian bleakness that even Helen Mirren would struggle with. The only consolation is that her flat monotone delivery ensures a spine-chilling Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt to rival the Berliner Ensemble in its heyday.
Despite all these metatheatrical inventions, I have to say that – as so often on my trips to the theatre – the writing was the weakest part of the show. Tellingly, nobody applauded at all. Perhaps now that Alan Bennett has finished arguing with Nicholas Hytner about his new play-within-a-play at the National, he might be free to write the script next year?
[img]http://ads.guardian.co.uk/image.ng/richmedia=yes&site=Theatre&spacedesc=rss&system=rss&transactionID=12585697002084428423336265413117[/img]John M Morrison
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Guardian: Should the Queen's speech get an Olivier award?
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