Mike Bartlett's masterly future history play on what happens when Prince Charles becomes king
“That’s right, and in good conscience I have thought
That come the moment, surely I could sign
But when the pen approaches paper thus
About to store forever my assent
And tell the future generations that
King Charles did let this happen, and, in proof
Applied the value of his name beneath,
The pen dries up, my hand it cannot write.”
King Charles III
Mike Bartlett may be our best British playwright. With each play he writes he demonstrates a variety of talent and perception, inventing new and diverse subjects.
His latest play surprised some of the critical fraternity, who hadn’t done their homework, when they realised his modern history play, like Shakespeare’s histories was in verse. Except that it isn’t accurate to call King Charles III a history play as it is about events that haven’t yet taken place.
It is about the early days of the now Prince of Wales as king, who has waited as heir apparent for seventy years for his mother Queen Elizabeth II to die and relinquish her title. Now Charles has said that he might well take the name George and become King George VII like his grandfather Bertie who chose George VI instead of King Albert I. Looming over him in this decision will be the fate of the very first King Charles who famously had his head cut off after losing the English Civil War to the Puritan Parliamentarians under Oliver Cromwell.
It is from that conflict of King versus Parliament that Bartlett gets his inspiration. The Labour Prime Minister Mr Evans (Adam James) has passed a bill through parliament to curtail the freedom of the press, to preserve the privacy of those hounded by the newspapers. These matters are brought to the public’s attention in the current (2014) trial of the Murdoch Group, News of the World and Sun newspaper staff accused of being complicit in hacking the phones of the rich, famous and even, despicably, a murdered teenager, so that her parents thought she was picking up messages from them.
Back to the play — for this privacy bill, or indeed any bill, to become law it needs the royal assent, the signature of King Charles III (Tim Pigott-Smith). Charles refuses to sign and sparks a constitutional crisis which will result in the monarch attending the palace of Westminster and ordering the dissolution of parliament, something that hasn’t happened against the wish of parliament, since his famous ancestor of the same name did this in 1629 (then 1628 because 25 March was the beginning of the year).
Meanwhile William, the Duke of Cambridge who has become Prince of Wales (played by his lookalike Oliver Chris) and his wife Kate (another good likeness, Lydia Wilson) will intercede to mediate between Prime Minister and King. Prince Harry (Richard Goulding) will discover, outside his usual social milieu, a girlfriend at art college, Jess (Taffline Steen) who introduces him to normality, including a trip to a Sainsbury’s supermarket to buy a Scotch egg.
The play opens atmospherically, in candle light, with the funeral requiem of the dead queen and a choir singing in Latin. This may be a serious play but there’s plenty to amuse. Immediately the service is over Harry announces his intention to head off, and goes to New Cross, not a salubrious part of London. It is the equivalent of Prince Hal’s Eastcheap in the Henry IV plays. While Harry plays, the constitutional crisis looms.
The ghost of Diana (Katie Brayben) will make an entrance and predict who will be the greatest king, like one of the Macbeth witches. Camilla (Margot Leicester) will support her husband with fierce loyalty and Kate will show the mettle she is made of. The speech which struck me most is made by William in Act 5 Scene 1, but it would be a spoiler to describe it here.
Act Four opens with many actors wearing masks of Guy Fawkes and one, a Prince Charles mask as the republican movement feeds the fury of the crowd. Charles alludes to that engagement interview with Diana when he says, “I once did question what love meant”. Towards the end of the play I wondered if we were watching The Madness of King Charles III?
The rhythm of the verse sits happily with the subject and we have no doubt of the sincerity of Charles’ refusal to sign. Tim Pigott-Smith at first gives us the royal diction in the first few lines but later reverts to his own voice. His performance is superb, full of angst and yet pig-headed. In fact Charles comes off quite well in this play which he will probably never see, theatre going not being a favourite royal pastime except for the Queen going to War Horse.
Rupert Goold gets great performances from his cast, totally believable and involving. Oliver Chris is a charming William, Nyasha Hatendi, a listening general, Adam James, a dutiful prime minister, Nicholas Rowe, a scheming leader of the opposition. With the Oliviers announced this week, clever money will be on King Charles III to win awards for 2014. It has everything, a serious subject with articulate, passionate speakers and tinged with a humour, gentler than satire, about this royal family. We don’t award stars but this would be 5 stars if we did!
King Charles III
Written by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Rupert Goold
Director: Rupert Goold
Designer: Tom Scutt
Lighting Designer: Jon Clark
Sound Designer: Paul Arditti
Movement: Anna Morrissey
Musical Director: Belinda Sykes
Musician: Anna-Helena McLean
Originally commissioned by Rupert Goold for Headlong
Running Time: Two hours 50 minutes with one interval
Closed at the Almeida on 31st May 2014
Transferred to Wyndham’s Theatre and closed on 31st January 2015
London N1 1TA
Phone: 020 7359 4404
Rail/Tube: The Angel Islington
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Almeida on 10th April 2014