Mike Bartlett‘s modern history play, boldly written in Shakespearean blank verse, won the Olivier Award and The Critic Circle’s Award for Best Play and was named “Play of the Year” by a variety of publications. After a successful run at the Almeida, it transferred to the West End and is now touring with a new cast and Robert Powell in the title role. Directed by Rupert Goold, the production is a fictional account of what might happen should Prince Charles become King in the not so far away future.
The performance begins with a memorial service. Queen Elizabeth has passed away after reigning the country for 70 years. The mourners are forming a procession, carrying candles and singing a requiem which lends a solemn and stately atmosphere to the service (music by Jocelyn Pook). Prince Charles is torn between sadness over his mother’s death and elation as he is finally going to be crowned King. His first action is a meeting with the Labour Prime Minister Evans to discuss a controversial bill that will severely limit the freedom of the press. The King is violently opposed to the bill and asks the PM to reconsider but Evans explains that the bill has been passed and Charles’s signature is just a formality. He leaves the King confused and frustrated. Meanwhile Prince Harry has met art student Jess who introduces him to the real world. Harry is fascinated by supermarkets and Kebab stalls, a world so unlike his own. Jess feels that Harry is unhappy and urges him to leave his former life behind.
When I saw the original production at the Almeida Theatre last year, I felt I was watching a Shakespearean play with modern characters. Charles, who waited for the day when he would finally ascend to the throne until he had reached retirement age, is not satisfied with being a mere figurehead. He is set on becoming a king who cares for his people, which includes taking action when he knows that something is wrong. However, his opponent Evans, who is not a royalist by any means, points out that kings are not elected and therefore are not allowed to take action in a democracy. The role of a King in today’s world has to lie in providing stability and certainty. When Charles decides to break this rule, it leads to disastrous consequences – for the country and himself.
There is always a risk when fictionalising the story of characters who actually exist, which is probably why under Rupert Goold and Whitney Mosery‘s (for the tour) direction the cast do not try to imitate the persons on whom their characters are based. Still there is appreciative laughter when the audience recognise various members of the Royal Family. Robert Powell lends gravitas to his character and is at his most impressive when sharing his thoughts with us in Bartlett’s masterfully written monologues. Kate as played by Jennifer Bryden is an emancipated woman with a touch of Lady Macbeth. She is not interested in being a beautiful prop but intends to share the responsibilities once her husband Prince William ascends to the throne. Ben Righton portrays William with quiet strength. Richard Glaves‘s Harry resembles a young Prince Hal who explores the world together with the sprightly art student Jess (Lucy Phelps) before he returns to the fold and accepts his responsibilities. Giles Taylor brings an amphibian charm to the duplicitous Mr Stevens, a refined Iago who instigates the King but won’t stand up for his beliefs or take responsibility for his dangerous advice. Karl Wilson portrays the Welsh PM with verve. Emily Swain is gentle and supportive as Camilla and Dominic Jephcott provides the necessary stiff upper lip as loyal assistant James Reiss.
The stage resembles the interior of a Norman castle with a band featuring a myriad of indistinguishable faces running horizontally around the wall indicating that the Royal Family is always under scrutiny (design by Tom Scutt). Jon Clark‘s lighting adds to the solemn atmosphere of the production and sends a chill down your spine whenever a ghost appears. A production that should not be missed. 4/5
Review written by Carolin Kopplin.
King Charles III is currently showing at the Richmond Theatre until Saturday 26th September. For more information on the production and UK tour dates, visit here…