Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: King Charles III, Almeida Theatre

Review: King Charles III, Almeida Theatre

“Shall I be mother?” asks Prince, sorry King Charles, handing his new prime minister a cup of tea. The queen, his mother, is dead and for the first time in nearly a lifetime, Britain has a new king. It’s a brilliantly flip quip in what looks like a brilliantly flip piece of theatre. At a surface level, it’s such a blissfully, absurdly and unapologetically – not to mention quaintly and anachronistically – British thing to say. But it’s both a razor-sharp punchline and a hefty old comment. That, after all, is precisely Charles’ dilemma: how to preside over a population that has only ever known one approach to monarchy, his mother’s arm’s length principle.

That’s the spirit of Mike Bartlett’s latest to its core. It looks like a nifty little joke – a mock-Shakespearean history play, written almost entirely blank verse, looking ahead to the heir apparent’s ascension – but it turns out to be much, much more. It turns out to be a takedown of the entire British establishment: monarchy, parliament, aristocracy, armed forces, media. In fact, it turns out to be the best British play since Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem.

King Charles III operates by stealth. It sneaks up on you: a state of the nation sucker-punch disguised as a harmless spoof. Ho ho, you think: here’s the imminent future presented in the shape of the past; here’s something deemed largely irrelevant and trite dressed up in the most profound clothes in theatre’s wardrobe. And yes, both those things are enjoyably arch, but they’re also two whopping great, easily overlooked truisms. The monarchy is arcane and it does matter.

This is satire in the truest sense of the word: it’s genuinely dangerous. But you don’t see its danger coming. While there’s a frisson of audacity in its opening scenes – a tickle of treachery in staging the incumbent monarch’s funeral, a wisp of mockery about actors adopting recognisably royal mannerisms – they give you no inkling of quite how far Bartlett’s going to go with this.

Pretty fucking far indeed, as it happens. If the title leads you to expect an arch character study – a joke at one man’s expense – what you get is a play that drills right into the very foundations on which this country was built, shaped and continues to operate even now. Barlett’s play builds up an enormous head of steam.

Within months of the Queen’s death, Bartlett’s Charles has exercised his regal right by refusing to sign a parliamentary bill about press regulation into law. Within a week, as MPs seek to circumvent that obstacle by passing a dictate eradicating the need for royal assent, Charles hammers on the door of his House and disbands his government, as is his right. Days later, he has quadrupled the armed guard outside Buckingham Palace and, um, parked a tank on its lawns, facing down the Mall. Britain, unsurprisingly, has come to a standstill. Around the outside of the stage, designer Tom Scutt has placed a cyclorama, a medieval stone mural of the masses. ‘Make no bones about it,’ this says, ‘You, the people, are naught but subjects.’ All we can do is look on, mute and horrified.

And yet, a big part of you sides with Charles. Press regulation is a canny choice of dispute on Bartlett’s part. In blocking the bill for a Royal Charter, Charles is, essentially, undertaking a popular action and doing so in good conscience. He proves a man of principle and, as an audience, we back him – even though the means at his disposal are less than satisfactory. In other words: way to tear your liberal-leaning theatregoing crowd in two. On the one side, a democratically elected (Labour) government seeking to limit press freedom. On the other, an unelected monarch seeking to preserve it. So; republicanism or liberalism? You decide.

Actually, no. You don’t. That’s Bartlett’s main point. King Charles III is a panoramic study of power – and most of that power is unelected. That goes for Charles himself, of course, and for his two sons, William and Harry (Oliver Chris and Richard Goulding). But it also goes for the wives that whisper into their Royal husbands’ ears – Lydia Wilson’s uncanny Kate Middleton and Margot Leicester’s Camilla. It applies, to some extent, to the PM himself (Adam James) – elected yes, but, not being entirely bound by that mandate, perfectly capable of acting against the national interest. It certainly goes for the Leader of the Opposition (Nicholas Rowe), a slippery, smooth Tory, quite at ease with such surreptitious power play. And for Charles’ press secretary (Nick Sampson), more than capable of pulling the strings behind the scenes. And, for that matter, the press themselves.

Aye, here’s the nub. King Charles III might look like a play about the monarchy – and it absolutely is – but there’s no doubt that this is a play about the media. For while Prince Charles is seeking to preserve its freedom, a nude selfie of Harry’s new squeeze – a determined republican scruffball arts student called Jessica – winds up on the front page. This is Bartlett’s smartest move: just like Shakespeare, his subplot provides a perfect counterpoint to the main narrative thrust. Not only does the personal cut across the political, in terms of the press; Harry also takes the opposite course to his father. Where Charles ascends, Harry descends. Charles puts his seat before his self, deferring to the responsibilities of the crown; Harry does the exact opposite and tries to reclaim a life for himself. He’s led on an everyday adventure, whisked away from Boujis to Sainsburys, scotch eggs and doner kebabs. He learns how the other half live – a marked contrast with Charles and his self-congratulating smirks at namechecking Findus.

There’s a fine point in this, then: that Charles only knows how we, the people, live from what’s in the press. But equally, we only know the royals – and indeed any of these public figures – through their public personas. And Bartlett deliberately avoids those public personas: he gives us a sympathetic, doubting Harry, of course, not the bumptious prat (spot the Shakespearean reference: Prince Hal); he gives us a wavering William and an ambitious Kate with more than a hint of Lady Macbeth about her. The press are the go-between and therein lies their power. They bridge the gap and, as such, they so wholly control the narrative. The press are, in no uncertain terms, the kingmakers in all this.

And so it comes to pass. As Charles brings the country into a monumental impasse over a matter of principle, almost, indeed, to the brink of civil war, he faces a coup from within his own family. Step forward William, pushed on by Kate – both capable of controlling the situation on account of their media-savviness and, crucially, their grandstanding opinion-poll ratings. The strongest moment in Rupert Goold’s pared-back staging (the sense is that he’s shown restraint, because King Charles III is so utterly a Rupert Goold script, in its surface tension and ironic grandstanding, he needn’t intervene and overload…), the strongest moment is (spoiler alert) William and Kate’s joint coronation. That’s the point at which you think, I do not consent to this assent: power grabbed through manipulation.

And why do Wills and Kate have such strong opinion ratings? Because they are so blandly inoffensive. William, exactly like the queen, is shown to bow to his grandmother’s approach to monarchy: absolute, unquestioning assent. The philosophy is don’t ever, ever rock the boat. And in skewering that, Bartlett skewers the entire neoliberal consensus that gives us identikit politicians in identical suits, chummily shaking hands and arguing the toss across the house of commons. Again, you see Scutt’s panomaric people and you realise that they – we – have only a toyworld choice between equals, which is to say, no choice, no voice at all. I can’t remember a piece of theatre that so strongly made me – little, left-leaning, neoliberal me – want to start a revolution.

Nor can I remember a state of the nation play I’ve enjoyed as much. Superb.

Photograph: Johan Persson

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