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The National (Scotland)
The National (Scotland)
Mark Brown

Exit Boris, stage right: The Fringe show relevant now more than ever

The Edinburgh Fringe show Boris The Third was programmed before the Prime Minister’s political demise. Now, however, it might be even more relevant than before

IMAGINE the scene: a theatre at Eton College, an expectant audience awaits a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, and, playing the titular, hunchbacked villain, one Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, aged 18. However, Johnson arrives on stage woefully under-rehearsed and incapable of remembering his lines.

Will the young Etonian be booed off stage or will he, as he will later do throughout his colourful ­political career, play the clown and turn the situation to his own advantage?

That is the question at the heart of Adam ­Meggido’s drama Boris The Third, which plays at the Edinburgh Fringe throughout August. The piece is based upon a true story: the now outgoing prime minister did play Richard III while he was at Eton, and he did forget his lines.

Meggido (who also directs the production) has created a play that considers the teenage Johnson through the lens of the man who has, in recent years, strutted his stuff on the UK political stage like a ­chaotic court jester. How, I wonder, when I catch up with the playwright during rehearsals, does Johnson being driven out of Number 10 by the “herd” of the Parliamentary Conservative Party affect the play?

“I was always aware that I was going to be ­updating this play daily or weekly, depending on what was ­going on,” Meggido replies. “It started off as a story about the rise of Boris. It’s a rise and fall story now, as is Richard III, so it works perfectly.”

The school Shakespeare performance that is the basis for Meggido’s play was, the writer believes, an early sign of the kind of bluffing that would become a feature of Johnson’s career as a journalist and ­politician. “It might be one of the first moments when people realised that this [bumbling and seeming lack of preparedness] is a contrivance,” he says.

Johnson’s tousle-haired persona is, the playwright adds, “a very studied act ... I think the whole bumbling persona is based upon something that he actually is”.

Meggido agrees with Johnson’s biographer, ­Andrew Gimson, that the soon to be ex-prime ­minister learned at a young age how to turn dyspraxia (a medical condition that manifests itself in difficulties with movement and co-ordination) to his advantage. “Gimson talks a lot about how [Johnson] is probably dyspraxic,” says the playwright.

The condition is reflected, the playwright suggests, in the almost ex-Tory leader “leaving things behind or being mal-coordinated. Like when he gets on his bike and just rides out onto the street”.

“These things are probably in his character. But once he twigged how people respond to that [in terms of finding it funny or charming], he decided to inflate it as a kind of persona.”

Meggido isn’t the only close ­observer of Johnson who thinks that his ­seeming bumbling buffoonery is a carefully ­cultivated and very effective act. The journalist and radio presenter Jeremy Vine wrote an article back in 2019 in which he remembered being at two ­different corporate events, some 18 months apart, both of which had booked Johnson as guest speaker.

At the first event, Johnson bundled in late and asked to borrow a pen with which to hurriedly scribble down some speaker’s notes. Then, getting to his feet, seeming flustered, he turned around to check the name of the host organisation, apologising that he had forgotten it.

This, of course, led to ­considerable amusement in the audience. As did ­Johnson telling a very involved joke, only to announce, as he reached the end, that he had forgotten the punch line.

“What an idiot!” one might think. ­However, fast forward to the ­second ­corporate event and, to Vine’s ­astonishment, Johnson replicated this routine in its entirety, from the late ­arrival right through to the same joke, with the same forgotten punch line.

It was at this point, Vine writes, that the penny dropped, Poirot-style: “Now, I thought, now I understand everything.”

Meggido agrees with Vine’s observation of Johnson’s “genius” for acting the fool. The fallen prime minister’s public buffoonery is “actually what all clowning is”, the playwright comments.

“There’s a theory that your inner-clown is actually who you are in the face of failure. So, rather than fail, what do you become? What mask do you adopt?

“There’s this sense that he is ­permanently the clown. He’s figured out what works.”

Meggido thought carefully about how to go about writing a play set at Eton during Johnson’s teenage years.

“I thought a lot about ‘is this a story about what Boris Johnson would genuinely have been like age 18?’.

“I decided not to do that. Actually, it’s the current Boris transported back to an 18-year-old self.

“His journey through trying to play Richard III is mirrored by his journey in the public eye. There are some parallels between the Shakespeare play [in which the title character’s quest for power ends in his violent slaughter] and Johnson’s career that are quite powerful.”

Indeed, Meggido observes, Johnson is “a huge Shakespeare fan, apparently.” So much so that the soon-to-be-departing premier is currently engaged in writing a book about the Bard of Stratford.

However, as ever with Johnson, the process of penning that volume (working title: Shakespeare: The Riddle Of ­Genius) is mired in mishap and controversy. During his premiership, Downing Street had to deny rumours that he absented himself from meetings of the national emergencies committee Cobra in order to work on the manuscript.

Johnson is, the playwright believes, “one of those people who are just agents of chaos”. Such people, he continues, “like to disrupt the environment they are in”.

“You can see that they feel edgy until everything is upset and unbalanced … Their happy place is when everything is on fire, everyone’s running around, and they caused it.”

THE playwright has, he says, “tried to get under [Johnson’s] skin” in creating his stage character. This process has been “a very interesting journey”.

This involved Meggido exploring, “the roots of [Johnson’s] privilege and the complete conviction in the self, to the degree that you almost have no shame whatsoever”.

Johnson was finally forced to resign following crushing by-election defeats in Yorkshire and Devon. As he announced his resignation, Meggido observes, “he looked like a man who really couldn’t understand why people were so het up about [issues such as Partygate and the Chris Pincher scandal]. That is definitely about entitlement”.

The notion of Johnson as an entitled, narcissistic clown is indisputably plausible. However, I suggest, behind the affability of Johnson the lovable buffoon, should we not also consider Johnson the right-wing toff who has, over the years, expressed some very nasty bigotries?

After all, this is the man who called gay men “tanked-topped bumboys”, referred to black children as “piccaninnies”, and suggested that Muslim women who wear the niqab face veil look like “postboxes” and “bank robbers”.

“Some of the terms that you’ve just cited are in the play,” says Meggido. “My investigation into how that [set of ­prejudices] comes about, and what it ­really means, is based upon this sense of one not analysing one’s own privilege. So, you’re unaware of the effects of things.

“In the 18-year-old Johnson, it’s also ‘banter’, it’s puerile. When these terms come out amongst the schoolboys, they don’t think they’re being offensive. There’s even a line in the play where Johnson says, ‘it’s not offensive, it’s fun’.”

For actor Harry Kershaw, who plays the role of Johnson in the drama, the unpleasant prejudices are "obviously at odds with the charming persona” that Johnson so often projects. “That’s Boris Johnson,” he adds, “he’s full of contradictions.”

THE nasty side of Johnson contrasts starkly with the humorous persona he projected, famously, on popular BBC TV show Have I Got News For You?

“He rose to prominence because he ­appeared to be this affable guy that you’d love to meet in a pub,” Kershaw observes. “He was very funny and very successful at playing the clown.”

Getting to grips with Johnson’s ­contradictions is, Kershaw explains, the key to making him an interesting stage character. “I don’t think it would be ­helpful for me to go in with an idea that I either hated or loved Boris Johnson,” he says.

The actor chose not to get ­“entrenched in politics” in developing his characterisation of the now hobbled PM. Rather, he concentrated on the question of motivation. What did Johnson want, and how did he try to get it?

“In this play, quite often what Boris Johnson does is that he charms you. I think that is far more interesting, as a piece of theatre, than something that makes your mind up for you.”

Perhaps there’s a lot to be learned from Johnson’s botched performance of Richard III at the age of 18. ­Maybe his ­future career, right up to his short, ­chaotic, ultimately disreputable period as prime minister, was already mapped out in that shambolic rendering of ­Shakespeare’s ­villain on the boards of Eton.

Boris the Third plays the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, August 3-29:

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