‘My life has been a lingering for the throne’
To the Almeida to see Mike Bartlett’s Charles III. Although its far less controversial than the marketing copy suggests its dark, forboding, daring and enthralling from start to finish.
The play acknowledges its debt to Shakespeare’s history plays in its copy, and from the opening exchanges – both in terms of its dramatic presentation and its use of verse the debt is obvious. So too are the echoes to the great tragedies Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear. By using a Shakespearian structure Bartlett successfully gives an other worldly feel to his future history play, a world which feels so dangerously close to our own it manages to be both chilling and funny.
That other wordly feel is enhanced by Gould’s simmering but restrained staging and Jocelyn Pook’s sublime score (which also reminds us of the timeless nature of the monarchy). The opening scene alone ( the funeral cortege of Queen Elizabeth II) is enough to tell you this is a theatre piece that requires you to sit up and listen. It barely drops a beat for the next two and a half hours.
At its heart this is a family drama played out against a nation openly in a fragile state after the death of its long serving monarch. It’s through the prism of the family that the piece really explores its subject matter – the relevance of the monarchy to the 21st century, the fragility of democracy and the thin line between freedom and autocracy.
The new King, Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith leading a strong ensemble cast) finds himself retreating into himself as he tries to stand up for what he holds dear, struggling to deal with the fact this long awaited role is nothing more than a puppet. Facing a Hobsons Choice Charles, in taking a liberal position unwittingly and unknowing verges on the dictator, betraying both his principles, splitting his family and turning himself into a Lear like obstinate fool. Meanwhile his younger son, Harry (Richard Goulding), ‘the ginger one’ is trying to free himself from the ‘regal walls’, falling in love with the ‘force of nature ‘ republican Jess and openly struggling with who he is and what he really needs. His battle between love and familial ties, between duty and honesty to himself is a constant driver through the play. It’s William (Oliver Chris) who remains true to his Grandmothers legacy remaining calm and stoic throughout, just (as Charles notes) like he was as a child.
Quite who plays the Lady Macbeth role is left open to debate. Both Camilla (Margot Leicester) and Kate are shown to be far more incisive than their respective spouses, both wish the Ghost’s (Diana) prophesy to be the greatest king to be true for their man. But it’s Kate who’s shown to want to share the power , although Lydia Wilson does seem to throw away her one soliloquy, a dramatic rant against gender inequality in the corridors of power.
Even if the ending is inevitable, Charles III is gripping, vital theatre. And it’s a vivid and vital reminder that as he approaches his 450th birthday if Shakespeare were alive today he’d be writing plays.
Runs at the Almeida until 31 May, booking details here
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