Following a successful stint at the Almeida and a run in the West End, director Rupert Goold (here with Whitney Mosery) brings Mike Bartlett’s ‘future history play’ to more of the nation’s subjects, with Robert Powell ably stepping into Tim Pigot-Smith’s shoes as the King-but-not-yet-crowned Charles.
Written primarily in blank verse, this smart, imaginative production wears its Shakespearean influence heavily (aided by Tom Scutt’s timeless, stripped-down castle set, and Joceyln Pook’s evocative music) but it’s certainly none the worse for that. There’s enormous fun to be had in the clash of contemporary culture and ‘old-fashioned’ speech, and the conceit works surprisingly well. The piece calls to mind both the history plays and the tragedies: there’s a ghostly Diana haunting the ramparts, and a Lear-like quality to Charles, who discovers too late how badly he has misjudged his children. Jennifer Bryden’s superb Kate is Lady Macbeth in Alexander McQueen – a sharp, savvy woman frustrated by being seen as an accessory who brings nothing but babies and ‘good hair’ to the family, and perfectly willing to scheme if she has to.
The action hinges on Charles’ unwillingness to sign a bill to curb the freedom of the press with a privacy bill, which his bluff, no-nonsense Northern Prime Minister (an impressive, impassioned Tim Treloar) believes is essential (sadly, perhaps the most outrageous element of fantasy in the whole piece is the idea that we might ever have another Labour PM). From this, spins out a larger debate on the role of the media and the monarchy, of tradition and democracy, and how a constitution-less country can balance often competing but equally compelling ideas of what it is to be British.
The play is at its most interesting when it’s this genuine moral dilemma: in the argument about whether a privacy law will muzzle the press, we see two honourable men who both believe (and can convincingly argue) they are right – but as the King’s qualm of conscience becomes a constitutional crisis, elements of farce kick in, not always to the benefit of the play as a whole – while it’s admittedly very funny, there’s a slight over-fondness for cheap and easy laughs.
In a uniformly strong cast, Powell gives a powerful, charismatic performance as a man made to wait too long for his place in the spotlight, tormented by his own weakness and letting that harden him to stubbornness. As his eldest son, Ben Righton brings surprising depth to William, who exhibits a tougher core than his father, and a willingness to treat his wife as equal in power rather than, like Charles with Camilla, merely a soothing helpmeet. Giles Taylor is a splendidly oleaginous Leader of the Opposition, so slick and true a Tory you feel you would be well advised to keep him away from any livestock.
Admirably ambitious as it is, not all of it works. It’s overlong, and the second act is weaker – some serious trimming would have sharpened its teeth. Richard Glaves’ Harry is likeable enough, but his slumming it with the common people adventure is less than convincing; his return to the royal fold inevitable (it can’t be coincidence, in such a thoughtful play, that his girlfriend studies at St Martin’s College – so, yes, you too can now have that song stuck in your head). As Jess, the Manic Pixie Dream Socialist Worker, Lucy Phelps does well enough, but the part was too ‘working class agent of chaos’ for my liking, and their relationship never really took flight. But these are minor caveats in an otherwise outstanding production, that already has the feel of a classic.