Writer: Mike Bartlett
Director: Rupert Goold with Whitney Mosery
Reviewer: Laura Jayne Bateman
Described by director Rupert Goold as ‘a future history play’, King Charles III imagines what might happen when Queen Elizabeth II, now Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, dies and is succeeded by the Prince of Wales. The play premiered at London’s Almeida Theatre in 2014, and such was the success of the production that a West End transfer has been followed by a Broadway transfer. This new touring production sees a fresh cast take on the iconic royal rôles, and they are well-served by a clever script, sharp direction and strong designs.
The play opens at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral: Kate (Jennifer Bryden) has realised that she is pregnant with her second child, Camilla (Penelope Beaumont) stands steadfast at Charles’ side, and Harry (Richard Glaves) just wants a drink in the nearest club. As Charles (Robert Powell) prepares, at long last, to ascend the throne, the Prime Minister (Tim Treloar) asks him to give his royal assent to a parliamentary bill restricting the freedom of the press. Charles refuses, and so begins a chaotic downward spiral that puts Britain on the brink of civil war and the monarchy at risk of utter destruction.
The play is, in the words of the author, a ‘quasi-Shakespearean verse drama’. Written in iambic pentameter, it draws heavily on Shakespearean tropes and traditions (such as the appearance of the Ghost of Diana), and Bartlett should be commended for his bravery in tackling such a controversial subject in this unique way. The script is intelligent and wry, with the royal characters relatively fleshed out, although all of the female characters bar Kate feel a little underwritten. The performances are universally strong, with Robert Powell utterly believable as the new monarch torn between a quiet life and what he believes is right. Jennifer Bryden as a forward-thinking, feminist Kate and Ben Righton as a conflicted William are engaging throughoutwhile Tim Treloar as the Labour Prime Minister injects bursts of energy into the complex legislative scenes. There is also effective multi-rôling from Paul Westwood and Parth Thakerar; the latter appears as characters as diverse as a kebab shop worker and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Crucially, none of the actors playing the royals resorts to impersonation or caricature, which prevents the evening from descending into melodrama or farce.
Tom Scutt’s designs are steeped in tradition and draw on the heritage of the monarchy to create a crumbling, versatile and medieval-esque space. Jon Clark’s lighting and Paul Arditti’s sound enhance the mounting tension, aided by Jocelyn Pook’s haunting original compositions. Rupert Goold and co-director Whitney Mosery direct the piece with flair; each movement serves a purpose, and the lack of unnecessary stage business adds to the production’s stripped-back grittiness by maintaining audience focus on the story unfolding.
King Charles III is a clever play, although perhaps not a thrilling one. Bartlett has written a dramatic and engaging script, which alongside the skilled performances and slick designs, makes for a thought-provoking and highly relevant production.
Runs until 10 October 2015 then on tour | Image: Richard Hubert-Smith