Last year we had two speculative theatrical imaginations of our reigning monarch the Queen’s interactions with her Prime Ministers: a whole slew of them in The Audience, stomach and with just one of them, sales Margaret Thatcher, in Handbagged (which coincidentally has just transferred to the West End’s Vaudeville Theatre).
Now the role of a constitutional monarch – and whether or not they have any real power – is directly challenged in Mike Bartlett’s vivid and wonderful King Charles III, which imagines the role that Prince Charles might try to play after his mother dies. He puts himself in direct conflict with the Labour government of the day, refusing to sign a new bill that curtails the freedom of the press into law. And when they government seeks to enact it anyway, he summarily dissolves parliament, and pushes the country to the brink of civil war.
It’s rivetingly imaginative stuff, and chillingly credible, too, in Rupert Goold’s bustling, bold production that’s full of spot-on impressions of Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith), Camilla (Margot Leicester), William (Oliver Chris), Kate (Lydia Wilson) and Harry (Richard Goulding). But this isn’t Spitting Image; far from caricature, they are each instantly believable.
And so is the situation that playwright Mike Bartlett plunges them into. He cleverly casts it in the form of a Shakespearean history play, mostly written in blank verse, with strong echoes of plays like King Lear, Henry IV and Hamlet (most notably with a ghost that keeps re-visiting the scene).
The result feels like an insightful history play for today, and the best modern play about the monarchy since Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III. It is equally full of wit and character, with a personal tragedy at its centre. Directed with incredible momentum by Goold, and magnificently cast and acted throughout, it makes for a truly wonderful theatrical evening. The West End surely beckons.
Re-reviewed for londontheatre.co.uk at Wyndham’s Theatre, September 2014
When Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III first opened at the Almeida in April, I wrote here that “the West End surely beckons.” That was hardly a difficult prediction to make for a play that is the most audacious and satisfying new play to arrive in London in a while, and now that it has duly moved to the appropriately regal Wyndham’s Theatre, I’ll make another easy prediction: it will surely be a huge hit there.
It taps into many contemporary themes that will resonate with a wide audience, from such matters as the ongoing relevance of the Royal family to issues around the freedom of the press. In a vividly imagined near future Prince Charles becomes King but puts himself into direct conflict with the Labour government of the day and refuses to sign a new bill that curtails the freedom of the press into law.
There are some stinging lines. I particularly loved Charles’s resigned acceptance of the consequences of supporting those freedoms: “It’s with the knowledge they will never live up to a higher standard. Naked girls and boys will illustrate their pages. Horrific murders will be made more atrocious by intrusion, and they’ll make hypocrisy an art, insisting that they stand chief moralist while making cash as base pornographers.”
As a former long-standing critic on a national tabloid, I’ve witnessed this hypocrisy first-hand and suffered its direct consequences. But you don’t have to be a bruised victim of this yourself to enjoy Bartlett’s witty, wise play, nor do you have to harbour republican sympathies: this is a play that implicates, challenges and confronts us all in an imagined future, as the country is pushed to the brink of civil war.
It also provides crisp and wonderfully believable portraits of Charles, Camilla, William, his wife Kate and brother Harry, each of them tremendously played by Tim Pigott-Smith (in arguably the performance of his career), Margot Leicester, Oliver Chris, Lydia Wilson and Richard Goulding respectively.
Bartlett’s play has a Shakespearean sweep and vigour (and it specifically channels the Bard in its extensive use of blank verse, as well as echoes of plays like King Lear, Henry IV and Hamlet). It is given a production of great rigour and spectacle by Rupert Goold, with fantastic live music performed by Belinda Sykes and Ann-Helena McLean that lend it great atmosphere.
This remains an unmissable event. And now that there are many more seats available in the West End than there were at the Almeida, there is no reason to miss it.