King Charles III – review
Curve, main theatre
King Charles III runs from 26th January to 30th January
Following a sold-out run at the Almeida Theatre and a critically acclaimed West End season, Mike Bartlett’s multi award-winning new play King Charles III comes to Leicester.
Our Rating: ****
Tuesday 26th January 2016
If you think the plot of tonight’s play is far-fetched, please read the history of England’s medieval kings and remember that Charles I’s defiance of Parliament led to the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell’s interregnum which saw the abolition of the monarchy. Not forgetting that James II was deposed by Parliament. One thing that history tells us about our monarchy is that anything can happen, already has done and probably will do. What playwright Mike Bartlett has done is to look at the present line of succession to the throne, study the characters he finds there and extrapolate what might happen when the inevitable day comes to pass when we see a new face under the crown of England. King Charles III is nothing if not provocative. The plot which unwound in Act 1 is credible. This play captivated me from beginning to end. As the plot unravelled, through several surprising twists and turns, I became more and more absorbed in it and the result of the audience was too, I think.
The production was solemn and dignified, almost to the point of frustration. It was a plot that bit hard on the bones of the British ‘constitution’ (not that our country actually has one) and gnawed away at the uneasy relationship between democracy and monarchical rule. Our state is a peculiar edifice. This was a very serious play but then so too were Shakespeare’s history plays – the Henrys, King John, the Richards – it certainly was not a comedy but could have been a tragedy, depending on your point of view. It is perhaps (as someone said) a ‘history for tomorrow.’ Bartlett’s drama is rooted in the popular media of the contemporary world, just as the great bard’s was rooted in the fashions and preoccupations of Tudor times. What we think we know about Charles, Camilla, William, Kate and Harry (through the lens of the media) was used to foresee how their roles might play out on the great stage of the state.
When I review a play, I normally give a resume of its plot. I have decided not to in this case; because I think that people should go and see it with an open mind and also be prepared for the many surprises, if not shocks, that it will provide if the details of the plot are not known. The play is about many things; it is about the main characters (the dramatis personae) both as individuals and as a family group, it is about how history is made, it is about the creaking fabric of the state, the endless battles between political leaders, the troubled relationship between the royals and the media, the machinations of politics and the law… I could go on.
One thing should be said about this play – Bartlett has done something few other contemporary dramatists would dare to do (or be foolish enough to do) – he has written the entire play in blank verse. The kind of thing we would be familiar with from seeing Shakespeare. It sounds like Shakespearian acting, almost, but not quite. Bartlett explained how this epic drama caused him to feel terrified at the idea of writing in verse (‘one thing I knew very little about, he admitted in an article). In fact, I liked this style; after all I have been going to Shakespeare plays for over 50 years) and a plot of this degree of epic-ness seemed to deserve something more than plain English dialogue. There are many points throughout the play where you can detect the influence of the great Bard’s history plays and the blank verse gave it a grandeur and solemnity that modern English would not have done justice to, it heightened the drama and enhanced the feel of the more monumental scenes. But even though it was written in blank verse using contemporary English, there are points where Bartlett drops in a literary anachronism or two (making the spoken dialogue far from realistic in today’s speech) simply to make the line scan an iambic pentameter, I suspect. As others have already pointed out, Bartlett lacks the gift for figurations and metaphor of the great Bard and lacks his ability to write brilliant twists of imagery. It would certainly not have worked had Bartlett tried to ape Tudor script completely; the content is far too twenty-first century for that. I cannot quote chapter and verse for these odd lapses of vocabulary (unless someone wants to send me a copy of the script) but I noticed them straight away. Happily not even these peculiar choice of words were a distraction from the plot or the acting.
If this aspect of the play interests you I recommend the article on The Guardian where Bartlett gives some examples of how he worked with the verse (Guardian 20/9/14)
Tonight’s production at Curve had many good points, not least Robert Powell’s acting and very dignified rendition of Charles. Tom Scutt’s scenery was impressive and convincing (although there was only one set and it never changed with the location suggested in the play.) Weighed against the many good points was Richard Glaves’s portrayal of the ‘ginger joke’ Prince Harry. Either Glaves’s characterisation or the script did not do it for me. What would have worked, I would suggest, is a blend of Shakespearian clown and elements of Hal (the young Henry V). The Harry of this play just didn’t feel right, from what we know of Prince Henry of Wales, the fifth in line to the throne. What we got were the antics of an unconvincing fool (to be fair to Glaves, I doubt he could have done much with the part anyway, given how it was written.) The other aspect of the play that I balked at was the appearance of the ghost of Diana Princess of Wales, more than once. We could have done without that and the scenes with the spectral visitations added little to the substance of the plot.
Bartlett’s play has been described as ‘brilliant’ and I agree with that; it is not a history, tragedy or comedy; it is a thriller. It digs deep into the modern world of power, politics and the state and rubs salt into the wounds created by the media. Its denouement sees the royals capitulating to the power of the press and they sign away regal authority in order to preserve the stats quo. The history of the English monarchy has been one of a gradual erosion of power, from the time when the King had absolute power, starting with Magna Carta and relentless slicing away of powers by Parliament until we end of by asking ‘what is left?’ A ceremonial position with even less authority than you would find in most European presidencies. In this respect the play is a dark and disturbing vision of out future with a constitutional crisis which threatens to plunge England into another civil war. It sees the Monarchy as bearing the seeds of its own destruction, imagining an apocalyptically dark chain of events that feeds on all we have seen over the past 800 years.
At the end of the play we see King William V seated in splendour with the orb and sceptre in his hands and the assembled congregation of Westminster Abbey proclaiming “God Save The King.”
Directed by Rupert Goold with Whitney Mosery
A play by Mike Bartlett
Set design by Tom Scutt
Lighting by Jon Clark
Musical director Belinda Sykes
News about the arts
A short history of food
Our roundup of theatre and drama in 2015