King Charles III

Almeida Theatre, London

© Johan Persson

© Johan Persson

Mike Bartlett has written some good plays in his time – Cock, Earthquakes in London, My Child and more. But few have bounded off the stage with quite such cheeky perfection as his latest, a `future history play’ speculating on life when our present Prince of Wales’s assumes the throne.

The brilliant stroke Bartlett falls upon is to write it in rhyming verse, in the style of a Shakespearean play featuring a cast list that includes Camilla, Kate, William and Harry, a PM and Opposition leader and various `commoners’. Diana gets a walk on part as a ghostly presence, telling Charles he will be the `greatest king of all’ and the same refrain comes to William having a restless, troubled night. Harry, in an echo of the young prince Hal in the Henry IVs becomes a roistering `bad boy’ tugging a little at the heart strings in his expression of the useless role he has been born into. Bard lovers will also find hints of Lear, as well as Edward VIII’s Abdication and Charles I’s run-in with Parliament.King Charles III by Mike Bartlett. Almeida Theatre then Wyndhams Theatre, London.2014/15

Bartlett’s exploration may look like an irreverent satire but this is also a thoughtful, topical, state-of-the-nation look at the relevancy of our monarchy and its relationship to the constitution today. In a delicious turnabout, it is Charles who turns out to be the democrat, refusing to give a Royal Assent to the Bill on privacy and press freedom deeming it wholly anti-democratic. There is much pleasure to be had, too, watching Charles playing PM and dissembling Opposition Leader off against each other.

As the new monarch, Tim Pigott-Smith produces a performance to treasure. The relish in his eyes, the twitch of the mouth all convey a man finally let off the leash whose enthusiasm and sense of principle and duty so veers into over-assumption of power it proves his undoing. He dissolves Parliament and in turn is forced to abdicate. `Kate’ emerges as the power behind the throne.

A premise too far you might think but Rupert Goold’s production carries gravity – Jocelyn Pook’s music mixes Te Deums with a Michael Nymanish score – and radicalism in equal measure. A big, important triumphant event.

First published in Reviewsgate in 2014