King Charles III

Posted by Laurence Green

Mike Bartlett's controversial, thought-provoking drama charting Prince Charles' accession to the throne is one of the top plays of 2014 says Laurence Green.

Tim Pigott-Smith in Charless III

The turbulent politics of royal succession is explored by Mike Bartlett in his bold and brilliant new play King Charles III (Almeida Theatre) which imagines what might happen when the Queen dies and the Prince of Wales's long apprenticeship finally ends and he ascends to the throne.

The action begins with a candlelit requiem at the present Queen's funeral and swiftly moves on to Charles III's first meeting with his Labour prime minister. The first role of the as yet uncrowned new king is to give the Royal Assent to a privacy bill that will curb press freedom. He is unhappy about it despite the gross intrusions suffered by his own family from the tabloids, and he refuses to sign it. This triggers a constitutional crisis and public unrest ensues.

Director Rupert Gould's riveting production combines wit and clarity with moments of deeper feeling without for one minute resorting to caricature or cheap laughs. The play is basically about private conscience and public duty and skilfully proves the powers actual and perceived of politicians, press and sovereign. It unfolds like a history play and is littered with moments that self-consciously recall Shakespeare's dramas, most notably a veiled ghost of Diana stalking the stage, and a troubled Prince Harry, with a punkish student girlfriend frequenting late-night kebab shops like some 21st century Prince Hal.

The characters mix the contemporary jargon with verse, archaic expression and lambic pentameter, and this device works superbly with passages of perfectly balanced poetry.

Tom Scott's design, with its sinister cunning mural, ensures the rituals of kingship appear, both imposing and intimate.

Gould elicits an outstanding performance from Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles, ruminative, perplexed, likeable, conscientious and stubborn and giving the impression of a man ill at ease with himself and others. Oliver Chris plays the Duke of Cambridge with diffident charm and more than a hint of steel, while Lydia Wilson makes a poised, astute Kate, in contrast to Richard Gouding's dishevelled, yet touching Harry. There are also touching performances from Margot Leicester as a look alike Camilla and Nicholas Rowe as a deeply devious Leader of the Opposition.

This is a controversial, thought-provoking work which sets its sights high and pulls it off magnificently. Certainly a five star evening in the theatre which even at this early stage in the year, goes down among my top plays of 2014.


King Charles III

Runs at Almeida Theatre until Saturday 31 May 2014.

Box office: 020 7359 4404

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