REVIEW: KING CHARLES III

by Lynn on January 20, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Wyndham’s Theatre, London, England.

Written by Mike Bartlett

Directed by Rupert Goold

Designed by Tom Scutt

Composed by Jocelyn Pook

Lighting by Jon Clark

Sound by Paul Arditti

Starring: Rory Fleck Byrne

Richard Goulding

Barnaby Kay

Margot Leicester

Tim Pigott-Smith

Nicholas Rowe

Tafline Steen

Lydia Wilson

A bracing, daring, play about the rule of the British monarch who wants to use his power to effect political policy and all hell breaks out.

The Story. Queen Elizabeth has died and Prince Charles has ascended to the throne as King Charles III. In his first meeting with Mr. Evans, the Prime Minister, Charles is asked to sign into law, a bill that would restrict the freedom of the press. Charles won’t sign it. The last time a British monarch refused to sign a parliamentary bill was in 1708. Since that time, no matter the personal attitude of the ruling King/Queen, he/she signed.

As the play points out, the “sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy…three rights—the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.” Charles wants to carry his power further—to have his conscience decide if he signs or not. He won’t sign. The Prime Minister is thrown for a loop. This is a crisis. Threats are made. The Prime Minister threatens to go around the King and get the bill passed since there is wide-spread support in Parliament. The Royal Family, namely William, Kate and Camilla, is brought into the dilemma. A provocative solution is proposed and followed.

In a secondary story line Prince Harry meets a young woman named Jess in a bar. She is anti-monarchy. She’s brash, combative, direct. Harry is smitten. A relationship forms. He professes his love and wants to give up everything for her. Then some private pictures of Jess find their way to the press, who splash it over the front pages of the newspapers. So here is a direct challenge to Charles’s idea of not restricting the press; lives are ruined; people are embarrasses; privacy has been breached. Charles is unmoved but understanding to how Jess feels.

The Production. Playwright Mike Bartlett has written a play set in the future, using the form and some linguistic constructions of Shakespeare. The dialogue is in blank verse but there is also a contemporary feel to the dialogue. The delivery is colloquial. Director Rupert Goold has directed a rip-roaring production with few pyrotechnics. Tom Scutt’s set has a high back wall of dark bricks. A wide band spreads goes across the top third of the wall. Projections of people are shot on it to suggest the people that both the monarchy and parliament represent.

The costumes are modern and beautifully represent the people wearing them. In the first scene, the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, Charles is in a black suit in which he pulls at the cuff of his shirt (right arm). Later he twirls the ring on his pinky finger. Voilà, Prince Charles. That’s all you need. As Charles, Tim Pigott-Smith does not use a bumbling, plummy accent. Just those few physical touches. Later in the play, when Charles is trying to assert his authority he wears his military uniforms. William is in casual khaki pants and an Oxford shirt. As William, Rory Fleck Byrne is laid back, his hands always in his pockets. Casual. A man of the people. Kate is perfect; pencil slim, form-fitting dress, impossibly high-heels, beautifully coiffed. As Kate, Lydia Wilson is composed, sly, maneuvering, perhaps a touch of Lady Macbeth, but I might be conjecturing. Harry is rumpled in black pants, vest, shirt untucked, hair mussed. A party boy. As Harry, Richard Goulding looks like Harry—scary that. Petulant, indecisive, almost a woe is me kind of quality, and you never get the sense there is much substance there. When he professes his love of Jess, it’s like a child with a new toy. We know Harry and it’s there in the play. We are not convinced he is anything but that party-boy, in spite of his professed love of Jess. And when the weight of the Royal Family comes down on him to smarten up, he dumps her and doesn’t tell her until she has to find him and make him tell her the truth. As Camilla, Margot Leicester is totally understanding, supportive and motherly. I got the sense from the text that this woman was in control of Charles as a mother would be. Fascinating.

The production starts with the funeral procession of the Royal Family etc. holding candles in Jon Clark’s somber lighting. They sing a hymn that is glorious. Love that.

I am so surprised by Rupert Goold’s direction, in that it serves the play and does not point attention to him, as I get the sense he does elsewhere. Relationships are carefully established with his staging. Subtle reactions—a look here, a flutter of a hand or reaction there—beautifully tells us everything about the delicacy of high diplomacy and scummy back-room politics.

Comment. I loved this play and the production of it. It’s literate, intelligent, provocative and conjures all sorts of questions about freedom of expression, the press, the point of the monarchy and abuse of power. I also loved the echoes of Shakespeare, King Lear for example, when Kate asks William about his opinion of the goings on and he says: “Nothing.” She replies: “Say what? Say more. For nothing comes of nothing said.” Thought provoking.

Produced by Sonia  Friedman Productions and many others are presenting the Almeida production of the play in the West End.

First preview: Sept. 2, 2014

When I saw it. Jan. 19, 2015

Closes: closing before February.

Cast: 12; 8 men, 4 women

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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