King Charles III
by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Rupert Goold
Wyndham’s Theatre, London
Saturday 13th September 2014, evening
Tim Piggot-Smith as Charles III
Charles III – Tim Pigott-Smith
Catherine, Princess of Wales – Lydia Wilson William
Prince of Wales – Oliver Chris
Prince Harry – Richard Goulding
Camilla – Margot Leicester
Jess Edwards – Tafline Steen
James Reiss – Miles Richardson
Prime Minister Tristram Evans – Adam James
Mark Stevens, Leader of The Opposition – Nicholas Rowe
Sarah / Ghost / TV Producer- Katie Brayben
Cootsey / Speaker of The House / Sir Michael – Tom Robertson
Spencer /Nick / Sir Gordon – Nyasha Hatendi
Ensemvble: Edward Elgood, Joe Eyre, Elinor Lawless, Peter Collis, Emily Swain
King Charles III sounds like a Shakespeare title, and the play follows through with blank verse and a Shakespeare style story of monarchy in crisis. It also has a typical RSC style set … brickwork surrounding a raised dais with steps. In the programme, Tim Piggot-Smith, who plays Charles III, says “So many people have said to me that this is how it must have been for the audience seeing Henry IV at the original Globe.’ OK, it’s in verse, it has a wild Prince Harry and a tragic king. But if he means it was sparking with contemporary events, there’s an issue. Shakespeare didn’t dare to cross the “century ago” barrier when writing about monarchs, and after 1599 was compelled to switch the historical and political setting to Rome to avoid offence. The theatres were banned from portraying English history after that, so Shakespeare writing on Henry IV is equivalent to late Victoria / early Edward VII for us. On the other hand as the 17th century approached, the Globe audiences knew the Queen was elderly (for those days), and succession was by no means automatic, just as in the 15th century of the Henry plays. Succession was debatable until George I onwards. So “Who’s next? And what will they do?” would have concerned late Elizabethan audiences. Modern Britain looks back at more than six decades of a stable monarchy and “What next?” approaches with the prospect of an elderly king replacing an elderly queen. If Elizabeth II reaches her mother’s age (and longevity runs in the family) we might have a 100 year old Queen followed by a man of nearly eighty.
The writer, Mike Bartlett has been lauded in recent years, but the only play I have seen is Love,Love, Love (linked) which I thought poor. Before I go on, I’ll note that I bought the playscript of this one on the way out of the theatre, which I very rarely do. I thought it a brilliantly-written play. I noted that the playscript presents it in five acts (though we all know it’s a play with one interval).
One wonders whether Charles or William have seen the play, especially as Charles is a keen patron and president of the RSC. They would need a heavy disguise,what with the posters and programme apparently using a real picture of Charles, but then again the initial run at the Almeida Theatre was sold out, and he could hardly use his position to gain admission to this one. If he were known to be present, half the cast would dry. We dropped by the Almeida when we were in Islington and asked if there were any tickets available in the next six days. Two separate singles would be fine. We were met with derision. I’m not sure why it was regarded as such a dumb request, as we got last minute tickets for both the Crucible and the 2011 RSC Macbeth by asking. So this is the play’s second run, transferred to the West End, where irritatingly the Prince of Wales Theatre was not available.
The Almeida reviews were ecstatic, and talked of how laugh-out-loud hilarious it was.It didn’t have them rolling in the aisles at Wyndhams, though it garnered plenty of moderate laughs, and Princess Diana’s ghost got a major laugh every time. I thought it was classic Shakesperean tragedy with a strong funny sections. More than the classic tragedies perhaps, but Henry IV parts I and II, and Henry V also have a lot of funny sequences. Perhaps that was the reference Tim Piggot-Smith was making. I also thought it was a star below those 5 star Almeida reviews for an obvious reason. The Almeida is a smallish intimate theatre, and Wyndhams is large and has three levels of balconies. While Tim Piggot-Smith in the lead role was perfectly clear and audible, some of the rest under-projected for some lines. It’s happened so many times with transfers of hugely successful plays with long runs from smaller theatres. The cast is so used to working at a particular volume, and don’t easily raise it. The fact that music and sound effects continue under several sections doesn’t help. We were in the lowest of the three balconies … the director should check it from the rear of the top balcony with a full house. The natural propulsion of blank verse doesn’t help clarity.
King Charles III has a constitutional crisis shortly after accession when he refuses to sign a draconian press censorship act by a Blair-like prime minister. Shades of 1642, and that all ended in tears. Charles is known to have written letters to ministers over pet themes for years, and the day before we saw this it was revealed that he had asked three different ministers to brief him on the Scottish referendum. Perhaps he feared the Scots Jacobite survivors who insist that Bonnie Prince Charlie was Charles III back in 1745. Real Charles’s interest in history means he would be fully aware that the Young Pretender had never visited Scotland before 1745, and was interested only in gaining the English throne from a Scottish base. He certainly had no Gaelic. Over The Seas to Skye is just so much Scotch mist.
It”s a nice thought that someone who has suffered so much at the hands of the press, in so many ways, should intervene to protect the press’s historic freedoms from a justifiable sense of moral principles. Good on him, even if he allegedly has a footman to squeeze his toothpaste tube according to that same press. In the play, Charles comes out rather well, at least until the final quarter where he becomes unhinged and sclerotic. I was on his side right up to and including the scene where he meets Harry’s commoner girlfriend, Jess. Jess has had intimate photos published in the very newspapers Charles is trying to protect from the politicians, and Charles is lovely to her, kind and protective. Up to that point, this fictional Charles might not have irritated Real Charles much.
It is different from Shakespeare as the play relies on the strong stereotypes of the characters we all already know, having garnered them from the tabloids. There is a mild feeling of embarrassment on their behalf, because we get a lot of jokes about our perceived clichéd views of the real people. The theme relies on a constitutional dilemma in a country with no written constitution. I found the conclusion, that the monarch is only a cipher alarming. The view of British Constitution I had was that the monarch was the last-stop defence against a prime minister who would be a dictator, because the monarch has the power to dissolve parliament, thus sending the problem issue back to the country, where it can be decided in the ballot box. There is precedent. In 1908, the House of Lords refused to pass the budget. The government asked the king to threaten to create new lords unless the house agreed to pass the budget. The king agreed to issue the threat, but only on condition that the prime minister then call an election to let the voters decide on his policies. More recently, in 1975, the Governor-General of Australia (acting as the Queen’s direct representative) faced a crisis when the Senate refused to pass the Labour government budget. It was a stand off, and the Governor-General consulted the Queen, sacked the Prime Minister and appointed the Leader of the Opposition on the condition that parliament be immediately dissolved and an election called. The prerogative powers, which the monarch can use without consulting parliament, include dissolving parliament, and appointing and dismissing ministers, which includes the prime minister.
So I thought that power real, and important, and that this fictional Charles was acting within his prerogative rights, though he was foolish to do so. He was also acting on a higher moral principle than revenge on the tabloids which no doubt motivated those slimy politicians after the expenses scandals. Freedom of the press should be maintained. The monarch cannot veto, but can say think again, and let’s double check your popular support by holding a new election. Apparently not in this play. Parliament refuses to be dissolved, precipitating fears of civil war. Charles’s mistake is that the power to dissolve parliament is supposed to be used to resolve a deadlock within the parliamentary system, rather than between the system and the monarch. But this is why it’s a tragedy. Charles is a well-meaning, principled moral man, but with a stubborn nature, and eventually hubris defeats him.
Kate (Lydia Wilson) and William (Oliver Chris)
As to the others, the fictional Kate (most interestingly) becomes the strongest figure in the play. In her manipulation of William, the Prime Minister and the Palace press officer, James, her character has a steely touch of a beautiful Lady Macbeth, not that she does anything evil. Bartlett’s Kate also gets the archaic touches, suggesting Shakespeare. She addressesWilliam as “Husband …” which I doubt many women do in 2014. Lydia Wilson plays her to perfection (though a little more projection early on would help). The knowing hair flicks and waves to the press, the knowledge of their image, her determination that her son George would inherit the crown. I’ll note a script change this very week, as she speaks on her role in life, based on the headlines of Kate’s second pregnancy three days before this performance
If possible, get pregnant with the royal
And noble bump, to there produce some heirs
If possible, get pregnant with the royal
And noble bump, to there produce an heir. Or two.
Kate with Charles
One of the advantages of buying the script right after the play, and looking the same evening, is you can actually hear the actors performing the lines in your imagination as you read. A line from Camilla after Harry bounds on and makes a long blank verse speech got one of the bigger laughs:
I’ve never heard you speak in such a way
With passion, strength … and rhythm too.
Harry (Richard Goulding) & Jess (Talfine Steen)
Prince Harry wishes to renounce his royal status to marry a commoner, art student Jess. He is excited by ordinary life, such as a visit to Sainsburys! I’m sure the real Harry has been to a supermarket. Diana would have seen to that, but it was more likely to have been Waitrose, perhaps. The oddity is that Kate is a commoner too, as she proudly proclaims. Charles is pleased that out-breeding might import Kate’s good hair into the family, echoing Prince Philip whoi is alleged to have been pleased that Diana’s genes might breed some height into the Windsors. Of course Harry gets back into the family firm by the end.
I thought Bartlett’s portrayal of the Blairite prime minister, Mr Evans, missed opportunities. The leader of the opposition, the suave and manipulative Mr Stevens became the villain, gently pushing Charles towards confrontation. I thought the story and the tragedy would have been enhanced if Mr Evans was allowed to be as self-seeking and vile as Blair, though he is uncompromising when he thinks he has the right. Divine right, in Blair’s case. Charles restrains himself from pointing out that politicians, as well as the monarchy have suffered from press intrusion, or revelation, and that they are protecting themselves with mealy-mouthed speeches about murdered girls phones being hacked. We all know that politicians care more about revelations of duck ponds and moats on expenses, or sex scandals than the other doings of the tabloids. I would have liked more on that angle.
King Charles III, Act V
William and Kate collude with the PM to save the monarchy by toppling Charles and forcing him to abdicate. Long Live William V. The idea or the media-created myth that William should inherit the crown, skipping Charles, has been strangely prevalent and is exploited here. That’s nicely double-edged. We applaud the clean-cut William’s move to travel through the baying mob in the Mall without armed guards, and to get rid of the tank Charles has had placed outside the palace. But we also see that he and Kate know their value is as plastic icons, smiling sweetly for the press photographers, arms around each other. They win because they’ll go along with the monarchy as mere photo opportunity. Period.
Start of Second Half: Spitting Image puppets
A great strength of this production is that the casting looks physically right all the way through. They have not cast lookalikes, but the cast of royals have enough in stature and appearance to “become” the real people in our minds very quickly. By the end, I just saw them as Charles, Kate, William,Harry and Camilla. Tim Piggot-Smith has been told how much he looks like Charles. He’s the same age, as am I, but he looks the part because of acting, not coincidental similarity A tug at the cuff here, one side of the mouth raised there, and he does it while avoiding the temptation to lampoon Real Charles’s own strangulated Advanced RP vowel sounds: hice for house, and so on.
While this would not be in my list of “Best plays I’ve seen in 2014”, Tim Piggot-Smith’s performance will be in my list of “Best actor performances of 2014. Mike Bartlett must be aware that Shakespeare started with Henry VI, worked forward to Richard III, then went back and moved chronologically from Richard II to Henry IV to Henry V. Tempting? Anyone for Edward VII Parts I and II? Edward VIII has been done so many times, but it’s a great story. But the fun of King Charles III is in speculation, not history … it describes itself as “A Future History.” So that is where it’ll have to end.
A bad night. Maybe it’s Friday. After the first scene, two people arrived at the row in front and went to the very middle, so the whole row had to stand. We therefore lost most of Harry’s first night club scene entirely. Then after that scene, two more people arrived, people stood up in our row, and they sat next to us. The man, two seats away spent the rest of the first half texting, with the light from his Smartphone shining in my peripheral vision. I mentioned it in the interval to staff, and I was the third to complain. What’s happened to no admission once it’s started? I think some London theaters (judging by their notices) are a bit harsh on that. I’d admit latecomers, but i would tell them to stand at the back until the interval. Add a guy who arrived about thirty seconds before the play started on the other side of us, and unwrapped a large sandwich and began munching it. What next? Popcorn and hot dogs on sale in the foyer? I’m not advocating the days when people dressed for the theatre, but it’s not a cinema. Who pays £59 to come to a theatre and spend an hour texting?