King Charles III The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, 7th -14th November 2015
“King Charles III” is a brilliant piece of theatre and poetic playwriting and a delight from beginning to end. An imaginative scenario of what might happen should the present Prince of Wales, when he succeeds to the throne at last, decide to exert a palpable influence upon British law-making, this play surprises, provokes and amuses all at once.
"King Charles III" had its world premiére at the Almeida Theatre in London in 2014 and then transferred to Wyndhams Theatre for a sell-out three-month run, to critical acclaim. In January 2015 it began a UK tour.
The play's inception followed the New International phone-hacking scandal and the resulting debates on legislation to limit the freedom of the press. It has remained topical, with references to current events (for example, the Scottish referendum and austerity cuts) inserted by the author.
The cadences of Mike Bartlett’s iambic pentameters flow and trip from the actors’ tongues, and the tropes of Shakespearean drama, the ghosts, the mechanicals, the power conflicts between individual needs and political pressures, are all there, brought up to date.
Robert Powell, who played Charles, describes his role as “layered and complex and funny and brilliant and poignant and tragic”. He plays it with all the swings between power and lightness of touch that it needs.
The scenery and the opening sequence, featuring Jocelyn Pook’s beautiful chorale, are a stunning evocation of the ritualistic world of royalty, into which Robert Powell’s drily humorous Charles brings his very human take upon the new responsibility of kingship and the role of his own conscience.
Mr Evans, the Prime Minister (Tim Treloar) is taken aback when the new king shows his strong determination to influence law directly. “Shall I be mother?” says Charles as he pours tea for them when the two men have a meeting in an early scene. Charles doesn’t intend to be like his compliant mother, it soon appears.
The women, in the family and outside it, are all strong. Lady Macbeth is suggested by Jennifer Bryden’s portrayal of Kate. Her priority is her children’s rights to belong to the royal family, and she sees no need to interfere with legislation or politics. But the male royals are searching for their roles now that the old Queen has gone.
Charles, checkmated by Parliament, cries, “What am I?” Richard Glaves as Harry is a touching figure, longing to be anyone but a royal after his big night out in Sainsbury’s, “shopping and stuff – all night!” with a new commoner girlfriend (Lucy Phelps). William (Ben Righton), supported by Kate, settles for stability and “just being there”, perhaps all that King Charles’ populace demand.
The play’s pivot is a stand-off between hereditary monarchy and elected politicians, brought about by the aging Charles’ determination to be a “good king.” Would Britain plunge into anarchy if the monarch refused to underwrite a law already passed by parliament? Does the British constitution disempower the "divine right of kings" to which Charles appeals when in extremis? Does Britain have a constitution? Just who is empowered by the British version of democracy?
This was a five-star production of a brilliant play.