Boris the Third: new play tells story of clown who became king | Theatre

It is the tale of a leader’s ruthless ambition, cynical skullduggery and brash mendacity as his country is gripped by crisis. Whatever could have drawn Boris Johnson to the role of Richard III when he played the part as a schoolboy at Eton? A new comedy presented at the Edinburgh fringe this summer will imagine what happened before and after the real-life event when the future PM took to the stage as Shakespeare’s brazen villain.

Adam Meggido was inspired to write the play, Boris the Third, after reading an article that described the 18-year-old Johnson’s blustering performance in the school production. Eric Anderson, a former headteacher at Eton, once summed it up thus: “He hadn’t had time to learn the lines, so had pasted them up behind various pillars. The whole performance consisted of him running from one side of the stage to the other and failing to read it properly.”

So, said Meggido, the teenage Johnson “literally moved from pillar to post to read his lines”. “He resorted to making stuff up and clowning, improvising with the audience. That is as much as we believe happened. The rest in my play is conjecture.”

Boris the Third, which Meggido will also direct, unfolds over the course of the rehearsals, the fateful school performance and its aftermath, but will contain potent parallels to modern-day politics and Johnson’s weakened position after his hollow victory in the recent confidence vote. Meggido plans to tweak the play up to and throughout its August run, depending on any developing Westminster intrigue.

When the writer-director first heard about Johnson’s school performance, he mistook the play in question for Richard II. “I thought, that’s interesting: a play about the weight of the responsibility of leadership.” When he realised it was Shakespeare’s tragedy about the later Plantagenet ruler, he reflected that “there’s more fun to be had with that – the scheming rise is a very interesting parallel”.

Adam Meggido, second from left, with Ruth Bratt, Lauren Shearing and Andrew Pugsley in Showstopper! The Improvised Musical at the Other Palace in London in 2019. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Meggido, an improv master who is best known as the co-creator of Showstopper! The Improvised Musical, is fascinated by the role of clowning in Shakespeare’s plays. “The clown has a very particular licence in Shakespeare – he speaks truth through semblance to folly. The clown can undermine the king or queen without necessarily being executed. That’s fine when you’re the clown but you can’t stay the clown when you’re king – otherwise you’re undermining your own rules.” This is the problem currently facing Johnson, he suggested, who played the clown “very effectively” on the path to becoming PM but is now left with an “identity crisis”.

Given the level of public fury about Westminster’s lockdown parties, is there a risk that a jolly comedy about Johnson will strike the wrong note? At the heart of the play is a serious debate, argued Meggido, who suggested that a simple bit of Boris-bashing wouldn’t be interesting to him as a writer. “As much as people are angry about Boris he can be very charming and very funny.” He hopes audiences will experience that dichotomy of “being charmed by him and kind of repulsed by him”.

During writing he has strived for empathy and understanding in his portrait of Johnson who will be played by Harry Kershaw. Supporting characters will include a fictional friend of Johnson’s who plays the role of Buckingham in the school play, raising the theme of betrayal both personal and political.

Comedies about our political leaders are a staple of the Edinburgh fringe which this summer also has a show called Boris Live at Five. Created by Jonathan Maitland, inspired by his 2019 play The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson, it invites audiences to pose their own questions to the PM “for the fraction of the cost of a fixed penalty notice”.

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