In the play “King Charles III,” Charles suffers a crisis of conscience and ignites a constitutional storm that brings the country to the brink of civil war.
Note: This review is from the Guardian.
Mike Bartlett has written a speculative play about the future of the monarchy. While based on a dodgy premise, it gains traction as it goes along and by the end has acquired a borrowed grandeur through its Shakespearean form and a tragic dimension through the performance of Tim Pigott-Smith.
Bartlett starts with the funeral of the present monarch and the accession to power of Charles, who proclaims, in the blank verse that is the play’s dominant mode, “My life has been a ling’ring for the throne.” But, even before he is crowned, he suffers a crisis of conscience. Formally asked to sign a bill restricting the freedom of the press, he refuses to give royal assent and thereby ignites a constitutional storm that brings the country to the brink of civil war. As if this were not enough, his son Harry falls in love with a republican art student and begs to be allowed to revoke his royal privileges and become a commoner.
If I question the play’s premise, it is for this reason. Although, as Prince of Wales, he has been famous for writing to ministers and scrutinising legislation, I cannot believe that within a month of becoming king Charles would be so naive as to seek to block a parliamentary bill. It is also a weakness that Bartlett never give any details of the proposed press regulation. But, once we are past these hurdles, the action acquires an unstoppable momentum. There is also a what-if fascination to seeing how a future king might exercise long-dormant powers, invoke army support and leave the country bitterly divided.
In short, Bartlett’s play gets significantly better as it goes along and makes greater use of Shakespearean resonances. There are echoes of Macbeth in the idea of Diana’s ghost as an instrument of prophecy and by the end we are into Richard II territory with the prospect of usurpation. As happens in most plays about kingship, the beleaguered monarch even provokes a grudging sympathy. Isolated, insomniac and haunted by his mistakes, Charles turns from an abuser of his legitimate power into a desolate and cornered figure.
It is all, of course, a fantasy, but it is one that raises fascinating questions about the future of the monarchy and that incidentally suggests the Duchess of Cambridge will not be content with the role of photogenic adornment.
The casting of Pigott-Smith also gives the play weight and substance. He starts by deploying familiar Caroline mannerisms such as the nervous shooting of the cuffs and the rotating of his signet ring, but goes on to skilfully show us a man of principled anxiety who declares: “Without my voice and spirit, I am dust.”
Rupert Goold’s production, played on a raised, empurpled dais, is also a model of dignified restraint and gets strong performances from Oliver Chris as a filially loyal William propelled into action by Lydia Wilson’s feminist Kate.
Richard Goulding as a Harry astonished by the fascination of the commoner’s life and Adam James as a prime minister robustly defending parliamentary rights lend good support.
I couldn’t believe any of it would happen. But at least the play has the courage to raise the question of how much British support for the monarchy is a reflection of admiration for its incumbent.
Until 31 May. Box office: 020 7359 4404.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010