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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
KING CHARLES III
at the Almeida

ROYAL TREATMENT
By JOHN NATHAN

  Richard Goulding and Tafline Steen/ Ph: Johan Persson

Britain's royals are probably the country's most satirised institution and family. So it's almost impossible to populate a stage with fictional versions of Prince Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith), Prince William (Oliver Chris), Prince Harry (Richard Goulding) et al without eliciting sniggers from a British audience. And as Mike Bartlett's “future history play,” as it's been billed, begins in sombre mood with a requiem following the queen's funeral, unintended laughter seemed likely to punch a hole in director Rupert Goold's titanium reputation. 

Add to that the sheer audacity of inviting audiences to view a new and contemporary work as a natural successor to Shakespeare's history plays, and the stakes couldn't be much higher.

This history play has all the necessary main ingredients: civil strife, competing claims to the crown and something like Shakespearean language – blank verse, soliloquy and similes galore. There is also a Hamlet-like ghost – of Diana, who manipulatively eggs on both her son William and her ex, Charles, to be the greatest king of all.

Is this a good idea? Writing a play like Shakespeare is a little like writing a concerto like Mozart and expecting to be flattered rather than faulted by the comparison. However, credibility slowly starts to assert itself with the politics of the play. First a quick lesson on British ritual.

The monarch's role in law making is largely ceremonial. The signature giving royal assent to a law is a rubber stamp, figuratively speaking. However, Bartlett imagines what happens if the king refuses to sign. This isn't so far fetched. Charles has often been criticised for attempting to step over the line that separates influence and power. And the law placed in front of him by the Prime Minister (Adam James) is one that Charles deeply objects to in principle. It curtails press freedom in the wake of (real-life) scandals about phone tapping by newspapers. So Charles's refusal sparks a crises – first constitutional and then civil. Street protests for and against the royal family spring up all over the country. The army is called out to protect Buckingham Palace. It's a fascinating tussle that does rather chime with the nation-building plots of past history plays.

Pigott-Smith's Charles is a deeply humane man whose good intentions are undermined by an intolerable sense of entitlement. Margot Leicester's haughty Camilla is probably the least flattering portrayal, while Kate (Lydia Wilson) is revealed as a woman of formidable political nous. William is a cautious protector of convention, and there is a powerful climax to Harry's story that echoes Hal's rejection of Falstaff in the second part of Henry IV.

It's hard to imagine a play more effectively questioning the role of the British monarch. And although this can't be the history play that Shakespeare would have written if he were alive today – it all smacks much too much of parody for that – you do feel that Bartlett's version, driven at a characteristically thriller-like pace by Goold, is as relevant to modern audiences as Shakespeare's plays were to his.

 


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