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King Charles III

Mike Bartlett
Almeida Theatre
Opera House, Manchester

Robert Powell as Charles Credit: Richard Hubert Smith
Robert Powell as Charles, Ben Righton as William and Jennifer Bryden as Kate Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

The title of this play is suggestive of Shakespeare out of his time; writer Bartlett has run with that idea with a script in blank verse with some prose and rhyming couplets thrown in and plenty of oblique references to the likes of Lear and Macbeth, amongst others.

Set sometime in the near future, the play begins with the funeral of our current Queen—an impressive sounding opening of Agnus Dei and Requiem, and a closing Te Deum and Sanctus, all composed by Jocelyn Pook. Charles is effectively King, although yet to be crowned, and has his first meeting with Evans, the Prime Minister—asking "shall I be mother?" as he pours the tea.

However it turns out that he is not his mother, who signed her Royal Assent to every bill passed by Parliament without questioning its contents. Charles is not happy about the new Privacy Bill because of the grave implications of having the freedom of the press controlled by politicians.

However the principal at stake is not the wording of this one bill but whether a hereditary monarch should be allowed to question a bill passed by an elected government. Kate encourages her husband William to step in before his father sacrifices the future of the monarchy for them and their children.

Brother Harry likes to shun the limelight and falls for an art student called Jess who, in a sex-reversed version of Pulp's "Common People"—she even "studies at St Martin's College"—introduces him to elements of her lifestyle that he finds exotic and thrilling, like going into Sainsbury's to buy a Scotch egg.

It's all very clever if a little self-consciously so with some interesting debates on the British constitution but without anything like the depth or grandeur of a true Shakespeare history play or the satirical bite of an episode of Yes, Minister. The verse is also cleverly done, but sometimes sounds a little stilted and awkward as the dialogue is distorted to fit the iambic pentameter.

The performances each give a suggestion of the character of the real person without any attempt at an impression, which works well. Robert Powell is a proud and principled Charles, with Penelope Beaumont as a Camilla who supports him every step of the way, even against his own children.

Ben Righton is a passive William until encouraged into a more statesmanlike position by his Lady Macbeth, the nice and well-meaning but scheming Kate (Jennifer Bryden). Richard Glaves is the tormented Harry opposite Lucy Phelps as down-to-earth Jess.

It's a great idea, but it isn't funny enough to be a satire and doesn't have the weight to be a serious state-of-the-nation play, so it does seem a little stretched to fit a 2¾-hour running time. But that certainly doesn't mean it isn't worth a look.

Reviewer: David Chadderton