As the programme notes proclaim, King Charles III has been one of the most lauded plays of recent years. It won the 2015 Olivier Award for Best New Play, received multiple adoring reviews, and made it into Michael Billington’s 101 Greatest Plays. And at a personal level, it came recommended to me by various friends and colleagues, all of whom espoused its brilliance with great aplomb. I’m always nervous about going to see new plays whose reputation precedes them in such a noticeable fashion, but King Charles III is one of those rare dramas that manages to achieve the virtually impossible, in that it largely makes good on all the claims made of it. There were certainly a few clumsy moments, but for the most part this was some of the best writing and acting that I’ve seen in years, to say nothing of the accompanying production.
Currently running at the Oxford Playhouse as part of its UK tour, Charles rests on a simple, speculative premise: what would happen if the current Queen died, and Prince Charles ascended the throne? In bringing this eminently plausible scenario to life, writer Mike Bartlett touches on some of Britain’s most pressing contemporary political issues — freedom of the press, the role of the monarchy in a democratic state, phone hacking, sexting, public shaming, and ideas about British national identity — barely a stone is left unturned. As with all avowedly political plays, it runs the risk of becoming outdated remarkably quickly, this particular play all the more so because it imagines a future that could well unfold in this generation. Director Rupert Goold addresses this problem directly in the programme, noting that the play has already undergone changes from its first incarnation. ‘The show has had to respond nimbly to changing current affairs’, he writes, adding that only minor alterations have been made ‘to keep everybody on their toes — and I love that. Theatre is a live art form.’
But the updating and reworking will have an end date, and I suspect that what will keep this play in production is not its immediate political relevance, but the strength of its characters. Writer Mike Bartlett has chosen a quasi-Shakespearean idiom, often using verse — a bold move to take on the world’s most famous playwright, especially if you’re going to use Tesco ready meals for your metaphors. But Bartlett’s Charles has enough nuance and emotional weight to stand amidst Shakespeare’s monarchies. He neatly channels elements of King Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet, and reflects them in his modern king: we watch Charles betrayed by his children, lusting after power, and haunted by spectres both visible and invisible. The final dialogue between Charles and Prince William (played here by Robert Powell and Ben Righton respectively) was electric, humanising the royal family better than any magazine story or news article could. On stage, they are both men negotiating competing demands of family, duty, ambition, and conscience. In Bartlett’s dance of Realpolitik there can be no winners, and this scene in particular captured the personal and familial impact of misplaced power.
Throughout, royal and personal identities overlap and intertwine, Charles asking what becomes of a man who has no voice in the state that he gives his life to, whose authority is in name only. ‘The greatest influence we can wield is in standing still’, he is advised. Time may pass, but the silent monarchy remain as a symbol of stability, the wants and desires of individuals subordinated to the greater good of crown and country. This simultaneous timelessness and gradual evolution was encapsulated beautifully in Jocelyn Pook’s incidental music. Drawing from Michael Nyman and Philip Glass (the opening scene especially reminiscent of Satyagraha), she has created a minimalist soundtrack, familiar chord progressions overlapping and slowly changing over the course of the play, seeming to represent both the progression and constancy of the monarchy itself. The drama opened to her take on the ‘Agnus Dei’, heralded by tolling funeral bells and accompanied by a carefully choreographed procession, highlighting the extremely impersonal spectacle that a public death becomes.
One aspect that left me disappointed was Bartlett’s treatment of class. In a script and production that was otherwise so sophisticated, his representations of the “general public” and their perception by the aristocracy stood out, sometimes bordering on crass caricature. Harry’s clubbing entourage succumbed to all the worst Oxbridge-Bullingdon-Club models, with lines like ‘Looks like you’ve been raped by Primark’ uncomfortably drawing laughs from a largely middle-class and elderly audience. This was the only aspect of the text that seemed a little out of touch, picking easy targets. Jess for example, Prince Harry’s latest “lower-class” amour, studies ‘the role of pornography in Islam’, managing to go for stereotypes about religion, arts students, and the “younger generation” in a single blow. Yes, Jess is supposed to be everything that would cause conservative angst, but there are surely more nuanced ways of going about it. Other than this, Jess was both written and played sensitively (by Lucy Phelps), which cannot be said for Camilla Parker Bowles. Although Penelope Beaumont admirably portrayed a woman defensive of her husband but buffeted by the winds of public opinion, one couldn’t escape the distinct sense that Bartlett just doesn’t like Parker Bowles that much. She is directly pitted against Kate Middleton (Jennifer Bryden) who is clearly the favoured royal, becoming something of a “voice of the people”. She is portrayed as the feminist bridge between royalty and the masses, at one point being shown to relate to Jess by uttering a casual ‘Fuck yeah’ in a particularly wince-inducing exchange. Her character is counterbalanced, however, by her far more compelling monologues, revealing her as a Lady Macbeth-type character, working behind the scenes to ensure hers and her children’s places in history.
Thankfully, these awkward moments were few and far between, leaving the majority of Charles to shine with consistently thought-provoking and astutely judged writing. This play has so many layers and levels that one review can barely begin to scratch the surface. It manages to function simultaneously as political commentary, human drama, and melodramatic battle between two forces. Steeped in history, with actors, writer, composer, and designers constantly drawing inspiration from various traditions, Charles will surely stay relevant for as long as there are press, politicians, and power struggles.
For the remaining dates in the ‘King Charles III’ tour, please visit the play’s website.