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King Charles lll

Mike Bartlett
Sonia Friedman Productions, Stuart Thompson Productions and the Almeida Theatre in association with Lee Dean & Charles Diamond and Tulchin Bartner Productions
Lyceum Sheffield

Robert Powell in King Charles lll UK Tour Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

Mike Bartlett is not the first contemporary writer to explore the dramatic potential of a play revealing the inside workings of Parliament (James Graham’s This House) or the special relationship between a constitutional monarch and the elected government as in Stephen Frears’s film script The Queen.

Audience members expecting an amusing or satirical evening’s entertainment will find themselves confronted by a modern history play influenced by Shakespearean models and written in sub-Shakespearean verse. The result is earnest, occasionally tedious and sometimes linguistically LOL inappropriate.

The action begins with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth ll and Charles’s expectation that he will crowned king after a period of mourning and preparation for the coronation. In the interim, Charles decides to assert himself, refusing to ratify a bill going through parliament, eventually precipitating a constitutional crisis by invoking an historical precedent and dissolving parliament independently.

The play is peopled with familiar figures from the Royal Family, whom Bartlett initially presents sympathetically as well-rounded characters. Even Diana and the deceased Queen make brief appearances as ghosts, as in Shakespeare’s history plays.

A number of contemporary issues are explored, like the intrusiveness of the press, the insularity of the Royal Family, the gulf in attitude and experience between the Royals and their subjects, the inappropriateness of a non-elected monarch determining events in a democracy and the impending threat of republicanism.

Rupert Goold’s direction, Jocelyn Pook’s wonderful music and a highly committed and energetic cast breathe life into a dry and generally humourless script. The second half of the play is much more dynamic when confrontation between the heir and his ministers, the self-interest of the next generation, collusion and back-stabbing narrowly avert the demise of the monarchy.

Robert Powell gives a strong performance as Charles and, towards the end of the play, becomes an almost tragic figure, reminiscent of Lear. Ben Righton as William grows in stature as the play proceeds and reveals a political sophistication and ruthlessness beyond his father’s capability.

The women in the play give strong support. Jennifer Bryden is an elegant Kate who, in addition to personal charm, demonstrates that she has the intelligence to become an effective power behind the throne. Lucy Phelps as art student Jess is a convincing representative of the people who introduces Harry to life beyond the palace gates.

The two main parliamentary figures, Tim Treloar as Prime Minister Evans and Giles Taylor as Leader of the Opposition Stevens, are recognisably individual as well as representing specific political positions and Dominic Jephcott provides an interesting counterbalance as the Palace advisor.

Richard Glaves has the more difficult job of representing different facets of Harry’s character, which initially borders on caricature, gives way to angst as he laments his purposeless role as the spare not the heir and ultimately shows him reverting to type.

Tom Scutt’s solid set suggesting cathedral or castle walls is a constant visual reminder of the long history of the monarchy in this country and Pook’s powerful choral music, excellently delivered by the cast under the direction of Belinda Sykes, evokes a tradition of ritual and pageantry.

The play differs from more amusing portrayals of the Royal Family in presenting them as three-dimensional characters dealing with large issues affecting the whole of society as well as privileged individuals of the immediate family. In the second half, Charles’s experience is presented as a personal tragedy which echoes Lear’s. An ambitious play which is partially successful.

Reviewer: Velda Harris