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King Charles III

by on 27 April 2019

First as tragedy, then as farce

King Charles III

by Mike Bartlett

The Questors at Judi Dench Theatre, Ealing until 4th May

A review by Matthew Grierson

Neither tragedy nor comedy, Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III blends both genres to offer us a history – or rather, an ahistory, given that it depicts a possible future spun from the state of the nation some five years ago. While the exact details do not thus correspond with ‘true events’, as they say, it’s remarkable that Bartlett is as successful at hitting its beats – a female PM, Harry consorting with a commoner and, most notably, a constitutional crisis – as he is in matching Shakespeare’s.

Questors’ eminently watchable, pacey production honours these intentions in the observance rather than the breach. It plays out dynamically on a plain thrust stage, in front of Victoria Smith’s minimalist set: one door to No. 10 and another to various rooms of Buckingham Palace, flanked by two blank portals. Above these is the screen on to which a suggestion of scene can be projected, whether the funeral with which the show opens, the House of Commons, or the interior of the palace itself. The latter is lit effectively to suggest the window through which Charles looks out on the kingdom he inherits – and divides.

King 20

By fitting its matter to the form of a Shakespearean history, the show makes its fake news more legible. Although the story is pulled by the twin poles of comedy and tragedy, it would stretch one’s suspension of disbelief to attach itself to either, for instance by remounting Agincourt or Dunsinane, even offstage, and even in the current political climate. So even while King Charles III is dramatic it never loses its grounding in reality. Similarly, the dialogue treads a careful path between Jacobethan drama and modern vernacular, in places achieving the resonance and lyricism of the Bard’s verse.

The playing of the public figures, too, conveys this sense of reality at one remove. Rather than opt for impersonations, director George Savona wisely draws out performances of character rather than caricature, meaning that laughs are earned legitimately rather than being bantamweight satire. Mind you, it would not be unfair to say that the play is well cast in terms of likeness. Ian Recordon as the titular, divisive monarch resembles the real-life HRH sufficiently that he could have gone for out-and-out mimicry, the Spitting Image version the new king recalls in a reflective moment. Instead, he gives an anchoring performance as a man beset by concern when he takes on the long-coveted crown, all the while keeping the real royal in view with discreet, unobtrusive expressions and hand gestures.

King 5

Responsibility and regalia make for a heavy burden; by my reckoning, even Recordon’s longest break from the stage must be spent getting togged up for the end of Act III ahead of the interval (well done costume designer Sarah Andrews). It’s thus to be expected that the actor might be a little shaky on some of his innumerable lines, but if anything this endears his portrayal of Charles to us all the more. By the time of his showdown with his sons in the palace in Act V, yours truly felt truly affected, and that’s coming from someone far from being a staunch royalist.

King 8In contrast to his father, James Burgess as the balding William – a hairless heir? No, all right – is bold and resolute, but still fleet of foot enough at one point that he presumes to take the mic in place of his perplexed pater, something Savona’s direction accomplishes so perfectly you barely notice. Behind, or rather beside, this manoeuvre is Claudia Carroll as a friendly but firm, and firmly feminist, Kate.

Rather than leaving the role of Lady Macbeth solely in her hands, though, Bartlett Lear-like splits that legacy three ways, and also getting a look-in as ambitious women are Lisa Day as Charles’ helpmeet Camilla and Samantha Moran as the ghost of … Well, that would be telling. Perhaps more pertinently, an audience acquainted with current affairs over the past three or four decades will see each of these women have more justification for seeking power than some have allowed the Scottish play’s fiend-like queen.

King 15

If Bartlett eschews absolute villainy for nuance here, there are more Machiavellian possibilities with politicking opposition leader Mr Stevens. As the top Tory Simon Taylor cuts an odd figure, considerably less Latinate and more avuncular than any parallel you may care (or not care) to identify. There’s certainly enough latitude in Bartlett’s script to make him into a neo-Iago, and as a result I can’t decide whether Taylor’s portrayal is a missed opportunity or a conscious decision to avoid extremes.

King 11

We’re on firmer ground with the PM, Mrs Evans. Portrayed by the aptly named Pamela Major, she may be as put-upon as the current incumbent of No. 10 but is in contrast a model of leadership. She’s just as determined to defend democracy – in this case, against the king’s idiosyncratic vision of the popular will – but she still manages to do so maintaining a humanity and good humour all but missing from Mrs May. And OMG you should see her face when she realises the king has invited Stevens to the weekly meeting: it’s a picture.

Mediating between politicos and princes is press advisor James Reiss, who is of all characters the most conscious of the public picture the palace residents paint. Francis Lloyd is thus pitch-perfect in his mediated performance, winningly cool and cruel when he feels the need but also able to express his care for his charges and concern for the continuity of the monarchy.

King 9

Indeed, the play shares with Shakespeare a preoccupation with people consciously performing roles, particularly in the exercise of authority. There’s thus a tender irony in the fact that this, unMarkled Prince Harry has the persona of Hal thrust upon him by his aide, Spencer (Jason Welch, giving it the full ‘Yah, bro’), when, back from military service he proves a reluctant rake. Oscar Gill’s charming version of the ginger joker supports a touching romantic subplot with an art student he meets in a nightclub, but drama and duty mean that this relationship must eventually echo Hal’s with Falstaff. Unlike Sir John, thankfully, the only respect in which Roselle Hirst’s Jessica is rounded is her characterisation, a winningly republican comment both within and without the Windsor camp.

King 13

On the face of it, the political arguments that play out over the show’s two-and-a-half hours are precipitated by a storm in a teacup: of all things, Charles is exercised by the need to maintain press freedom, when as both he and the PM point out the media has never been a friend to him. The bait of legislation restricting runways is also dangled before the new king, and with later mention of his visit to the flooded Somerset Levels, plus Charles’ known environmental concerns, I did see the ghost of another play haunt this one, preoccupied not with the state of the nation but the state of the world. When the Met Commissioner (Deborah Flatley) remarks that ‘reserves are cut, no more to come’, I couldn’t help but think of the policing of this month’s Extinction Rebellion protests, and the environmental issue the play avoids is only going to get more pressing in reality.

Nonetheless, it is the press that is Bartlett’s theme, and however contrived the conceit, public image is explored intelligently through the play. But let’s not forget that our impression of who the royal family are is heavily coloured already by the Fourth Estate, especially since the days of Diana. In which case, it’s not so much the freedom of the press that is at issue, rather its decision to continue reinforcing the narrative it has itself established: of Charles as a proto-Hamlet, the earnestness of his eldest, and his younger son as a playboy with a conscience.

Telling its story in the overlap on the Venn diagram between the red tops and the Complete Works, King Charles III may signify that Britain is ‘a weakling shadow’ of its Golden Age, as Charles fears he will be as monarch. Or, it may show us that we can survive a new constitutional crisis without resort to civil war. Who knows, it may even turn out to be truer to history than Shakespeare’s versions of the past.

Matthew Grierson

April 2019

Photography by Rishi Rai

From → Drama, Reviews

One Comment
  1. celiabard permalink

    A thoughtful and provocative review allowing opportunities for further comment within a modern context, five years later.

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