Reviews West End & Central Published 12 September 2014

King Charles III

Wyndham's Theatre ⋄ 2nd September - 29th November 2014

Handsome, sonorous, and light-footed.

Stewart Pringle

Going in late is a funny thing, particularly going in late to a work as feted as Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III. On the one hand, nothing you say has much of a punt at originality, the play and production having been pretty well masticated before the first cherry blossom fell. On the other, there’s none of the pleasure of commenting on how ably Tom Scutt’s design and Tim Pigott-Smith’s vowels have swelled to fill this larger playground. But on yet another (a third hand, appropriately, as third hand is very much how my experience felt) there’s a chance to measure the work against the grand expectations built by critical buzz and lengthy anticipation.

It turns out pretty much everyone was pretty much on the money. Bartlett and director Rupert Goold have created a handsome, sonorous, light-footed and extremely funny modern-day (or rather future) tragedy that never feels pat and only occasionally smug, that pays homage to Shakespearean verse-drama without fumbling and fondling at it like so many inferior ‘updatings’ or ‘imaginings’. Pigott-Smith sort of plays Charles, but really plays an amalgam of so many of Shakespeare’s greatest tragic figures. He has Hamlet’s vacillations, Macbeth’s hauntings and premonitions, Caesar’s suspicions and, eventually, Lear’s madness and betrayal by his own children.

Bartlett takes the improbable concept of Charles’ refusal to sign a post-Leveson bill quashing the freedoms of the press and expands it to a full-on constitutional crisis, as the massed energies of parliament and Charles’ increasingly anxious family attempt to force his hand to the paper or his arse off the throne. The plot is really just a variation on Michael Dobbs’ novel To Play the King, famously adapted for television as the second volume of the House of Cards trilogy, with Ian Richardson’s poisonous Prime Minister Francis Urquhart dealing swift justice to Michael Kitchen’s touchy-feely Charles-a-like. There the stakes felt a little higher, with the crisis emerging from the King’s discomfort with Urquhart’s harsh sanctions on the poor, but in both tone and content the two works are remarkably similar.

Here the focus is, of course, shifted to Charles rather than those who seek to undo him, and in both writing and performance the King ascendant is a regal achievement. Pigott-Smith is bruisingly wonderful, and Bartlett’s choice of form allows for soliloquys of such beauty and wit that they genuinely make you miss their absence from the majority of modern plays. The inner life of the increasingly desperate and disparate monarch is invoked in supple and free-wheeling pentameter, dabbling in thoughtful extended imagery before switch-backing into stinging modern vernacular. It could easily be a gimmick, but not in these hands, and the power of Bartlett’s verse only grows as the skies around Buckingham Palace darken.

The faceless interchangability of the Tory and Labour leaders side-steps easy swipes at satire and instead paints a bleaker picture of the homogeneity of parliamentarian rule and the fallacy of democracy, and both Nicholas Rowe and Adam James (named with Tweedle-Dee grimness as Mr Stevens and Mr Evans respectively) excel. Bartlett and Goold allow themselves a little lighter fun with Camilla, played with a gruesomeness tinged ever so slightly with pathos by Margot Leicester. If Camilla has existed in the cruel public consciousness as a beacon of insufficiency, that impression bleeds through into her scattered and anaemic exchanges with Charles.

The most fascinating re-inventions are Wills and Kate, who Bartlett has transformed from the fodder of glossy magazines and national broodiness into characters of skin-crawling portent. Lydia Wilson stuns as Kate, capturing just a hint of her mannerisms but twisting them into a Goneril-like malevolence. Neither heroes nor villains, they stand for something far more terrible which makes sense only within the twisted and lunatic world of the constitutional monarchy. The lynch-pin of Bartlett’s great tragic theme of principled self-destruction against craven stability, they begin at the margins of the play and grow unnoticed until they hold the stage utterly.

Much less successful, sadly, is the sub-plot. The story of Prince Harry’s (Richard Goulding) escape into the land of the ‘povs’ and his passion for socialist student Jess (Tafline Steen) is initially good for a few of the cheap laughs Bartlett shuns elsewhere, and Goudling in particular gives a fantastic performance, but once the sub-plot runs out of its own stage-space and begins to rub up against the greater action, it begins to feel extremely forced and improbable. As a bit of bandiage with the concept of crap Elizabethan side-stories it’s perfectly innocent, but by the final scenes it’s become a distraction and it dies away limply against the brighter flames that move centre-stage. The appearance of the ghost of Diana suffers similarly, a perfectly solid conceit and a decent joke in its own right, Bartlett’s more frivolous ideas here fall victim to the strength with which his main plot is constructed.

There’s also a more general sense that, like the Royal Family, the play fails to engage on anything but a superficial level with the wider world. There is little room for nuanced and identifiable emotion within the world of duty and tradition Bartlett describes, and where his verse falls down in comparison to Shakespeare’s (the absurdity of that sentence should give a measure of how well and how often he succeeds in this) is its failure to suggest the wholeness of human experience in its grand talk of courts and kings. The opening of the second half, as V for Vendetta masked protestors gather outside the Palace, middle fingers raised to the sky, is a thrilling vision of popular unrest, but it feels token when it’s so easily swept back into the narrative with the appearance of Harry and Jess.

It’s all directed with magnificent pomp and gravity by Goold, against a doomy choral score by Jocelyn Pook that brings to mind the end of the world, never mind the end of the monarchy. Scutt’s design is one of his very finest, archways of brick that suggest the gloomy chambers of Cawdor Castle, spread outwards in a Globe-like curve and mounted by a strip of faded faces that can suggest the horde of history, portraits in a royal gallery and a baying, merciless mob with the slightest tweak of Jon Clark’s eloquent lighting.

It looks fucking breath-taking, is what I’m saying. Like the enduring past of monarchy and theatre built to weather the present and stand stolidly, threateningly into the future. And at its best it is something truly brilliant. What it fails to do is locate the monarchy within the wider world we live in and are moving into, but perhaps one of its points is that such a thing just isn’t possible. Bartlett keeps his politics largely out of the picture, but if they poke their head in anywhere it is in that strange dislocation between the shadow the monarchy casts over Britain and its lack of real distinctiveness when thrust into the light of day.

At one point Kate describes the world as a constant play of surfaces, and her actions in trouncing Charles’ ambitions ensure that the surface of the monarchy remains as calm, unrippled and implacable as ever. That it retains its reflecting surface for the hopes and ambitions of a Britain ‘sliced’ ever thinner and refuses to allow perturbations to touch it. The most chilling conclusion of King Charles III is the vision of the king, the almost-mad almost-king, as the only true connecting between the monolith of the monarchy and the living world of subjects which it nominally overlooks.

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Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

King Charles III Show Info


Directed by Rupert Goold

Written by Mike Bartlett

Cast includes Tim Pigott-Smith, Oliver Chris, Richard Goulding, Nyasha Hatendi, Adam James, Margot Leicester, Tom Robertson, Nicholas Rowe, Tafline Steen, Lydia Wilson.

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