Richard II, Act 3, Scene 3
‘King Charles III’, currently playing at Wyndham’s Theatre, is the play I have been waiting for. With so many rave reviews that it became one of the many Almeida transfers to the West End, like one of my favourite books of last year, ‘The Marlowe Papers’ (Ros Barber), it’s written in iambic pentameter. It’s a modern Shakespearean tragedy and, not only that, but it is done to nigh-on perfection.
Unlike Shakespeare, however, thankfully we live in a time where playwrights don’t have to watch what they say to avoid a sentence of treason, and even perhaps the death penalty, as Mike Bartlett would certainly have be in for it in Tudor times! Bartlett envisages London after the Queen’s death, during the three months interim before Charles’ coronation.
Naturally, this is a subject that has been joked about a lot i.e. Charles being desperate to get his hands on the throne. However, whilst naturally there are a lot of ‘wink, wink; nudge, nudge’, funny moments, this is also, at heart, a tragedy; the downfall of one man, and his struggle, not only against his government, his public, and his family, but against himself. Yet, of course, as a King and the leader of a country, Charles must deal with his own problems whilst shouldering the responsibility of a turbulent, modern country. It is a gripping study of what it means to be royal today, and of what it means to be a good king (just like Henry V, which we all know is one of my favourite plays of all time!).
Tim Pigott-Smith stars as our eponymous protagonist, and really carries the show. The iambic pentameter never feels forced in his mouth, and he makes the difficult decisions a ruler must take seem just that: difficult. Even if one doesn’t agree with a character’s choices, one must still emphasise with his situation and understand why they made that choice, and Pigott-Smith really gets the audience on his side, despite plunging the country into chaos and near-revolution.
Likewise, the rest of the ‘Royal Family’ do a great job of stepping out form the shadow of stereotype. Even though there were the obligatory laughs of recognition when they first appeared, Kate, Will, Harry, and to a lesser extent, Camilla, all become fully-rounded, three-dimensional characters rather than just caricatures. Lydia Wilson as the Duchess of Cambridge, in particular, shines; not only does she have the mannerisms and the posture down to a tee, but we get a multifaceted portrait of this clever, cunning, courageous woman who, despite growing up a ‘commoner’, is key in ensuring the continuation of the ‘Brand’. She is strong-willed and determined and a PR genius; not only a strong woman, but a strong character.
Oliver Chris (last seen in ‘Great Britain’) brings the same believability to her husband, Prince William. He is torn between standing behind his father and monarch, and doing what his wife says and protecting the brand. What does it mean to be strong as a royal? Is it what the Queen does i.e. always doing her duty, never giving away her opinions, and supporting the family no matter what? Or is it making sure The Royal Family product is safe, even if this means going against your own father?
There are honestly so many amazing cast members in this production I simply don’t have enough time to write about them. Adam James is a great Prime Minister and Nicholas Rowe is an excellent, slippery Leader of the Opposition, at some points it seems only out to make trouble without any huge benefit to himself. Richard Goulding is perfect as a rather sweet, naïve Prince Harry, and I have to give a mention to one of my favourites from many of National’s Shakespeare productions, Tom Robertson (think I praised him before in my Timon of Athens review) who played many parts with many different accents. My favourite, though, had to be the Made-in-Chelsea type who introduced Harry to Jess, the everyman of this play.
This brings me to one of the only flaws in the play. Although Jess was acted very well by Tafline Steen, I did feel that ironically she became the most stereotypical character on stage. In trying to establish her as ‘so different to the usual blonde bimbos’, she became somewhat predictable.
The staging (Tom Scutt) is marvellous; sparse but very effective. The brick walls looked deceptively simple at first, yet soon one noticed the band of painted faces about half way up, all the way around. These faces would light up or darken, representing the public. A lot of the time this really emphasised the difference between a character’s private and public personas.
The funeral of the Queen right at the beginning, in which each of the darkly clothed actors holds a small candle, and the Coronation right at the end are the most spectacularly staged scenes, each accompanied by music from the clarinet and cello, and some powerful harmonies from the actors sung in Latin. I also loved the presentation of the rioting in the streets, as actors donned the infamous Guy Fawkes/V for Vendetta masks and dark hoods and marched on a scrabbling, ridiculous grinning Charles mask. One could feel the threat and sense of immediacy in the air.
As you can probably tell, I thought this production was absolutely brilliant. Was it perfect? No. There are always elements in a play that I don’t entirely agree with – how could Prince Harry have a long conversation with a kebab shop owner about the Royal Family, and that owner not recognise him? There’s a whole ‘Diana ghost’ concept which was very Shakespearean, but also a bit too ludicrous fpr me and I also thought the deliberate highlighting of the slimy Leader of the Opposition being Conservative was a bit gratuitous. It felt like pandering to a London audience and the arts world in general, and I felt, really wasn’t necessary.
However, it’s a play I came out of exhilarated and amazed. It made me laugh, and despair, and it made me think. It’s well acted all round, the staging is brilliant, and, most importantly almost, the script is so interesting. It’s the sort of play that could be played to generations in the future and they, too, would be both amused and gripped by it. Unlike many modern plays, it doesn’t rely on clever modern references for its success, but at the same time it plays up to the current times for a current audience. It’s a Shakespearean tragedy for our times, and for future times, and that is why this is a must see.
‘King Charles III’ at Wyndham’s Theatre: 5/5 stars