Writer: Mike Bartlett
Director: Rupert Goold
Reviewer: Hannah Hiett
The history plays of Shakespeare always have the following in common: they are on the grim side, and they are always about kings and succession. King Charles III is a future history play. In form, it takes the iambic pentameter, creative word order and blank verse of Shakespeare’s 16th Century history plays and applies them, with startling success, to a projected near-future.
Where Shakespeare looked to the past for inspiration, writer Mike Bartlett has looked ahead, to the moment when Queen Elizabeth II dies, and Prince Charles prepares to succeed her. In a Britain that has changed so radically under Elizabeth’s long reign, is it possible to imagine the survival of the British monarchy without her?
Robert Powell is the beleaguered Prince Charles, who wishes to rule according to his conscience. Powell’s performance is laden with the weight of history – real and theatrical. In Powell, we see a shade of Richard II and his refusal to sign a bill limiting the freedom of the press results in constitutional chaos and the threat of a dismantled monarchy.
The Royal family’s drama plays out like a soap opera, with family rivalries, betrayals and disputes aplenty, gilded with the glamour of wealth and power, and weighted with the resonance of Shakespearean language and legacy.
There are moments of lightness in the vaulted halls of power – moments where contemporary words find themselves in ancient-sounding sentences or there is a flash of self-awareness in characters that are deeper here than the ones we see in newsprint. There are moments of absurdity too – a grown Prince Harry enthusing over his first trip to Sainsbury’s (as if he’s never been to Sainsbury’s) seems more like clownish posh-bashing than thoughtful satire. Despite that, Bartlett’s play manages, on the whole, to steer of judgement. A deeply political play, Bartlett skilfully avoids taking sides in the contest of wills between crown and state.
King Charles III serves up a lot of food for thought – it seems pertinent that, at the centre of the showdown between the new king and parliament, is a question of the freedom, among other things, to write about the intimate worlds of public figures. The play itself is a product of that liberty – thank goodness imagining the death of a monarch is no longer a hanging offence – and offers a thoughtful new perspective on how Britain defines itself in the 21st century.
Runs until 12 March