Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 1, 2015
The Almeida Theater Production of King Charles III, a future history play by Mike Bartlett. Directed by Rupert Goold. Scenic and costume design by Tom Scutt. Compmoser Jocelyn Pook. Lighting design by Jon Clark. Sound design by Paul Arditti. Cast: Tim Pigott-Smith, Anthony Calf, Oliver Chris, Richard Goulding, Nyasha Hatendi, Adam James, Margot Leicester, Miles Richardson, Tom Robertson, Sally Scott, Tafline Steen, Lydia Wilson.
Not that much about this fine and fascinating evening, which has been directed by Rupert Goold, feels especially forward-lookingand that's a good thing. For although Bartlett has, as the title implies, appropriated a Shakespearean view of royalty, his play unfolds with a chilling resonance for our times by inspiring us to confront what we want and why want it from those who govern (or, let's be honest, rule) us. King Charles III may be structured as if it sprang from the Bard's pen, complete with blank-verse dialogue for the British Royal Family and prose for the commoners, and it may have premiered in London in 2014, but it's relevant enough to also echo political movements in the United States now (and maybe forever).
Simply put, it examines what happens when Queen Elizabeth II dies and her son, whom we currently know as Prince Charles, ascends to the British throne. He's someone who's been overlooked, even discarded, all his life, and is not sure whether he's up to the challenge of maintaining a millennium-long legacy, let alone building on it for the years to come. "So I am better Thoughtful Prince than King," he says early on. "Potential holds appeal since in its castle walls / One is protected from the awful shame of / Failure."
It does not take long for him to discover that's not exactly true. In his first meeting with the prime minister, from the leftward-leaning Labour party, he discusses a bill soon to arrive before him for his approval and signature: one that restricts the press, if ostensibly to guard against hacking of phones and placement of hidden cameras. But Charles is concerned that its broad wording could put more elemental freedoms at risk and, to the prime minister's horror, refuses to sign it.
Bartlett does not pretend there are any easy answers, but makes it clear this conundrum about the relationship between the government and the governed is one that an effective society requires we not ignore. But, like Shakespeare, he does not lose his grip on the human woes at his story center. We're completely consumed in Charles's desire to do the right thing at any cost, yes, but those around him prove every bit as vital; we see how Prince William, the next in line, deals with the fallout from his father's actions (often at the best of his wife, Kate), and how William's brother Harry romances a revolutionary woman named Jess who repudiates all that Harry's family stands for.
This combination of a sweeping larger view and a probing intimacy lets Bartlett craft a surprisingly deep and thoroughly involving play that both lives up to its dramatic forebears and feels freshly minted and necessary. What's more, not once does the style feel like a gimmick. Though Bartlett must twist some of his contemporary English around in order to get the meter and rhyme to work properly, most of the writing rings as totally natural in both what's said and how it's spoken, and many of the plentiful but not overwhelming laughs arise from just this juxtaposition. ("So coronation day itself is just / The Ancient costumes worn, and lines to learn / A slice of theatre, that's played for fun?" Kate muses. "Not fun I think for me, I think," responds Charles. "I hate those things.")
Perhaps most important is that, although the entire play is an homage, right down to the crispness of Goold's bustling staging, which unfolds on a regal unit set by Tom Scutt (who also did the luxurious now-meets-then costumes), with broad lighting by Jon Clark, and music (by Jocelyn Pook) played by two live musicians, King Charles III utterly resists dissolving into parody. Charles may progress from Richard II to Hamlet to Lear, for example, or Kate may wield an unmistakable air of Lady Macbeth, but such occurrences are the inescapable extensions of these circumstances, so you accept them in a way you're unable to when the only goal is isolated comedy. Bartlett does occasionally overextend himself (in strict technical terms, the ghost of Diana probably does not need to appear to one character, let alone two), but overall it's disciplined, blistering writing that earns the pride of place it's set for itself.
Margot Leicester finishes Camilla, Charles's wife, with a sheen of nonentity that underscores, with both beauty and sadness, the woman's role as eternal backup player to her husband (in the public eye, if nowhere else). And those playing subsidiary, and mostly fictional, characters, including Adam James as the prime minister, Anthony Calf as the head of opposition, and Tafline Steen as Jess, are every bit as good as the leads.
It's hard, however, to get past Tim Pigott-Smith. His Charles is superb, thoughtful and thinking, and yet a unique kind of victim to the world and the people around him. Like Bartlett, he renders Charles as a serious person and not a buffoon, but nonetheless someone who is being driven by innate forces that could be outside his best interest. Pigott-Smith doesn't skimp on either the inflated sense of self-worth or the vulnerability beneath it, and gradually merges both into a single tragic flaw that explains with marvelous, affecting acuity the difficulties and dangers faced by people in such positions.
Chances are that most of us will never be able to completely comprehend, or for that matter sympathize with, those who, like this Charles, hunger for more than they can ever grasp, and must construct their lives and their personalities around fulcrums other than who they really are (or would be if given the chance). King Charles III reminds us that our leaders are ultimately at the mercy of us and the power we invest in them. Maybe the real problem, Bartlett suggests with his rich and worthy play, isn't that Charles fails but, as Shakespeare also (if more obliquely) posited, no one saddled with it can ever truly succeed?