Writer: Mike Bartlett
Directors: Rupert Goold and Whitney Mosery
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
The (relatively) near future. The Queen, after more than 60 years on the throne, has passed away. According to precedent, her eldest son, Charles, immediately becomes King. King Charles III opens with her funeral and it is a truly majestic affair. Set on a stage resembling the inside of a castle tower, the cast sing powerfully and mournfully while moving around the stage, around and on a central dais, in a beautifully choreographed slow and stately dance. One immediately knows that something special is about to occur.
But life must go on. The State must go on. Before he knows it, the new king must have his first meeting with the Prime Minister on matters of State. In a spirit of even-handedness, Charles also invites the leader of the opposition to a weekly meeting. A bill to control the press through statute, to prevent and criminalise many of its recent actions is presented for his royal assent. A formality: his mother was thoroughly consulted on the measure; it has passed through both Lords and Commons.
But what if Charles, in all conscience, feels unable to consent? Royal Assent has not been withheld since 1708. In this vision, Charles does feel unable to assent, asking that the Prime Minister return to parliament and ask again; reopen the debate. Citing the primacy enshrined in law of Parliament over the King, he refuses. The two become entrenched and a full-blown constitutional crisis ensues. Is there a middle path? Can anyone act as an intermediary between two sides?
In King Charles III, Mike Bartlett certainly asks some big questions. That he has written it in the iambic pentameter used by Shakespeare adds to the weight and dignity of the piece. Beautifully crafted soliloquies let us enter into the minds and hearts of the participants, allowing us to understand their viewpoints, albeit with rather more modern language and cultural references. Nevertheless, it is confidentlyShakespearean in its structure, with a mysterious ghost giving cryptic messages, scenes ending in rhyming couplets and a romantic sub-plot in which Prince Harry discovers the joys of life as a commoner with Jess, a republican.
Tom Scutt’s dark set, with a gallery of painted faces observing all, Jon Clark’s harsh monochromatic lighting and Paul Arditti’s eerily beautiful soundscape sustain the mood and general feeling of unreality The direction of Rupert Goold and Whitney Mosery is masterful with only the slightest of dips in pace during the second half.
At the centre is Robert Powell’s tour de force as Charles. Initially reasonable, we see him backed into a corner as he seeks relevance but only succeeds in splitting opinions all around. His descent is well captured and believable. A towering performance. Also powerful isTim Treloar’s Prime Minister. His demonstration of a man who simply cannot understand the stance taken by Charles and his increasing desperation to win his point that parliament is supreme is etched in every movement. The comic relief brought by Richard Glaves’ Harry – and his simple wonder at having visited Sainsbury’s – is indeed a joy and never descends into farce or parody. His scenes with Lucy Phelps’ Jess are a joy to behold.
Kate, played by Jennifer Bryden, is painted as the brains of the operation. It is she who manipulates William (played with a straight bat by Ben Righton) and succeeds in eventually providing the solution, and Bryden shows this scheming side perfectly.
truly thought-provoking, powerful, and visually and aurally stunning, King Charles III lives on in the memory as its ramifications hit home. A triumph.
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith | Runs until 19 September 2015 and on tour