Experience a new take on history at these West End shows
Theatre has always had an interesting intersection with history, reflecting and redefining it in various ways. Think Shakespeare creating heroes and villains in his plays in order to suit the current monarch’s tastes, and shaping our view of English rulers in the process - a kind of national myth-making. History, of course, is written (or sponsored) by the winners.
In recent years, political playwrights like David Hare and James Graham have grappled with extraordinary modern history as it unfolds, from the Iraq War and Labour Party infighting to coalition politics and the rise of tabloid culture.
But how long should we wait until we immortalise history in theatre? Is a period of reflection needed? Or is it the responsibility of artists to deal with urgent issues in their work as soon as possible?
Right now, London’s theatreland is teeming with bold and inventive productions which don’t just tackle history, but do so in ways that transform or challenge our views — whether through their new takes on familiar subjects, revolutionary casting that prioritises the neglected viewpoints of women or people of colour, or simply bringing a witty, irreverent approach to history which allows young audiences to get excited about it.
Here are some of the most interesting London shows with historical subjects that you can book for now.
Hands up who learned that infamous summary at school: ‘Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived’? We definitely did, and we approached these six historical figures via their husband, Henry VIII, while largely accepting the version of events shaped by successive Tudor writers.
That’s what makes Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s smash-hit musical such a dazzler. It cleverly riffs on those school history lessons and subverts our established knowledge via its reclaiming of “herstory”, letting the six wives tell their own stories in a way that they were never allowed in male-dominated historical discourse.
Plus the show’s format itself is such a clever choice, making these stories incredibly accessible to contemporary audiences by presenting the queens as competing modern pop divas. It allows the writers to offer sly commentary on the skewed gender politics of the time - and of our time - and makes us consider how women are presented in history, and how often that presentation benefits a patriarchal order. By teaming up, the women are defying that narrative and rewriting the past.
Book Six tickets on London Theatre.
Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher are both catnip to dramatists, cropping up in everything from Netflix’s The Crown and feature films The Queen and The Iron Lady to stage plays The Audience and A Question of Attribution. The fascination with Her Majesty, in particular, is surely speculating about such a well-known but guarded figure. What is The Queen really like, and what might she say if she could express herself freely?
Moira Buffini’s Handbagged, which began as a one-act play in 2010, became a West End hit, and is now back by popular demand, is particularly playful in puncturing our assumptions about The Queen, by pitting her against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Although Her Majesty is the rules-bound authority figure, she is much more empathetic here - fascinating speculation from Buffini.
The playwright also suggests more inner conflict for Thatcher than we might expect given her historical image as one of Britain’s most intractable leaders. Buffini introduces younger versions of both Thatcher and The Queen in Handbagged, using them to question the actions of their older counterparts and give us a whole new view of how this key part of history might have played out.
Book Handbagged tickets on London Theatre.
Victor Hugo’s seminal 1862 novel made waves by questioning the fundamentals of French society, particularly its justice system, class divide, urban design, politics, and how all of those elements lined up with religious principles. He even sympathised with the revolutionaries: a bold stance.
Art is hugely necessary not just to argue such points, but to make others truly understand and feel them. The epic Les Misérables musical goes a step further than Hugo’s novel by plunging audiences into history, so that we really see what it was like to be a hounded convict, a struggling worker or a lonely street kid.
Since history is more often concerned with the ruling class, or with battles and statistics, this immersion into the French underworld is a shocking digression.
Not only that, but the stirring score helps us empathise with everyone, even the dogged policeman, the thieves, scammers and prostitutes. But nor does it shy away from the bloodshed and chaos of revolution. History here is complicated and messy, driven as much by individuals as major events.
Book Les Misérables tickets on London Theatre.
We barely remembered Alexander Hamilton, the forgotten Founding Father, until Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical became a global sensation. Now his fascinating story is the one we can all recite (or rap) - the journey from immigrant orphan through military hero and government revolutionary, and then the tragic loss of it all.
Miranda’s show is all about the very making of history: “Who lives, who dies, who tells our story”, George Washington aware that “History has its eyes on you”, Burr aghast that he’l be reduced to the villain of the piece, Hamilton constantly plagued by thoughts of his legacy - “planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” His enemies buried his story; Miranda, with an assist from Eliza and Ron Chernow, resurrects it.
But Miranda goes one step further. Through his racially diverse casting, he changes our perception of these historical figures and of who is worthy of being at the centre of the story, while also drawing contemporary parallels between them and modern-day rappers. The world, and history, will never be the same.
Photo credit: Handbagged (Photo by Tristram Kenton)
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