Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III is a modern day Shakespearian masterpiece. A piece of lèse-majesté which if performed in Shakespeare’s time, would surely have led to imprisonment and execution. Thankfully, this wonderful production at the Almeida should escape calls of treason.
The play opens with the funeral of our much loved and popular Queen. Elizabeth II has died after seventy glorious years on the throne and her son, Charles Phillip Arthur George Windsor, is now King Charles III. We see Charles’ first audience with his Labour Prime Minister and his concern regarding a recently passed bill protecting privacy and imposing regulations on the press. The bill is waiting for his Royal Ascent and the fallout from his decision to follow his conscious and withhold that ascent sees the country split, Parliament in disarray and Charles’ own family conflicted.
We see Prince Harry (Richard Goulding) in a hoodie hanging out in Boujis and dissatisfied with his lot until he meets republican art student Jess (Tafline Steen). In the middle of his father’s constitutional crisis Harry seeks, and is granted, permission to absolve himself of his princely status and live a normal life with a car, a job and trips to Sainsbury’s, much to the dismay of the Palace’s press officer who’d rather he stuck with his usual ‘Sloanish fluff.’
The Shakespearian nods continued with Lydia Wilson’s Duchess of Cambridge giving her best Lady Macbeth, with fabulous Kate Middleton hair. The Duchess pushes her stiff and dutiful husband, Oliver Chris’ William, to save the monarchy from his conscientious father. And, like Macbeth and Hamlet, we see the ghost of Diana drifting through scenes and uttering ambiguous prophecies to Charles and William. To each she utters “You’ll be the greatest King this country will ever see.”
Tom Scutt’s minimalist set echoes many modern productions of Shakespeare’s classics. The stage formed of a regal dais with four large candlesticks in each corner and a long narrow painted frieze of the masses/subjects encircles the space, reminding me of the surviving painted panels of the original House of Commons. Tim Pigott-Smith is superb as Charles, at first capturing the familiar Charles we all know; the anxious twisting of his signet ring, the speech patterns and his awkward hands in double breasted pockets. But his performance is much more than just a caricature, with the final scenes heart wrenchingly touching as his conscious wins out and the position he has waited all his life for passes him by.
In short, Bartlett has triumphed in creating a modern, entertaining and tender ‘future-history’. The use of the privacy bill is particularly effective as Charles fights to safe guard the future of the very business that destroyed his marriage and ultimately caused the death of the People’s Princess. Despite the odd ‘that wouldn’t happen’ moment the play is a fantastic success, boldly raising the question of how much the monarchy’s popularity is for the institution itself or for the incumbent. Considering a recent Ipsos MORI poll on the future of our monarchy, I’d suggest the Prince of Wales gives it a miss.