Writer: Mike Bartlett
Director: Rupert Goold with Whitney Mosery
Reviewer:R G Balgray
After spending what seems like ages confronting questions of our own national identity, it is perhaps appropriate to remember an earlier priority: namely, trying to understand our larger Southern neighbour. In an unusual way, King Charles III, presently at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, makes its own contribution to this complex process.
Its central conceit astraightforward one. The present Prince of Wales has, finally, ascended to the throne (his coronation awaits). In the process, he brings with him a number of inconvenient views (including some thoughts on the relationship between privacy and the media). In short, this swiftly leads to a constitutional crisis. So far, so familiar. So what differentiates this play from the miles of tabloid newsprint on just such a scenario?
Well, for a start, Mike Bartlett has courageously made it a verse play. This has mixed results: at its best, it lends the work a sub-Shakespearian air; at its worst, comprehensibility can sometimes suffer. Secondly, the play has a fine cast – so delivery of its multi-layered, multi-scene narrative is a strength. And thirdly, the play is supported by some very high production values (these extend to a programme which, with its diagrams, explanations and extracts from Bagehot, looks sufficient to fuel part of a secondary school Modern Studies course).
While the stage set is in the form of a simple dais, the backdrop features the bricks and mortar, arches and alcoves which come to represent tradition, surmounted by the pressed-up faces of the sweaty masses of the populace – excluded and unrepresented. Add to this effective use of music – the power of Latinate hymnal chanted by the ensemble bearing candles cannot be overstated – and the use of effective lighting to reinforce both its pageantry and its powerful imagery, then you have some idea of how the stage action shows some of the mystery at the heart of the monarchy “bubble”.
In a uniformly effective cast, Robert Powell is simply magisterial in portraying Charles: he manages to elicit sympathy while exhibiting all the flaws of a man whom history has trained, spurned then rejected as the younger members of “the firm” display all of its legendary survival qualities, and then some. And the wit of the script certainly scores a number of points against all of those involved: from self-serving politicians to smoothly consummate lackeys to the family itself – and particularly, since her ghost makes some scene-stealing but unhelpful appearances, Diana.
However, the play is strongest in its thought-provoking qualities. Less about the media and the right to privacy, more about the rôle of the monarchy: what permits it to survive, in an increasingly unsympathetic world. Bartlett clearly revives Shakespearian views on this, in his references to the hollowness of the crown (debts to the history plays, and Macbeth in particular, are numerous); but he puts in the younger Royals’ mouths the understanding that making sure “nothing happens” is exactly the point.
Runs until 21 November 2015