JOYCE MCMILLAN on KING CHARLES III at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 21.11.15
4 stars ****
THEY SAY THAT people often dream about the Queen; but Mike Bartlett’s strange, dark and playful new constitutional drama – premiered at the Almeida 18 months ago, to an ecstatic response – is something more like a playwright’s dream-cum-nightmare about the eventual accession of Prince Charles, who celebrated his 67th birthday last weekend.
In a bleak semi-circular space like a Shakespearean castle keep, we see Robert Powell as Charles take on the role of king at his mother’s death, a few years hence; and almost immediately plunge Britain’s unwritten constitution into chaos, as he flatly refuses to sign a bill, already duly passed by both Houses of Parliament, that restricts press freedom in order to protect personal privacy. Within weeks, he has commanded the dissolution of parliament and provoked riots in the streets, while the Labour Prime Minister and the more pragmatic members of the royal household – led by Prince William and his ruthlessly ambitious wife – stand around aghast, and beg him to follow the example set by his mother, who “always signed”, no matter what bill was put before her.
All of this is conveyed in a theatrical style that ranges from the daring to the silly, as the cast of 12 enter singing a requiem, and launch into a tragi-comedy that both adopts and parodies the style of Shakespeare’s history plays, with most of the dialogue written in rough iambic pentameters, frequent verbal echoes of Shakespearean scenes, and a special appearance by the ghost of Diana, who cunningly ramps up the conflict by telling both Charles and William that they will be “the greatest king ever”. Robert Powell as the king, Tim Treloar as the Prime Minister, Ben Righton and Jennifer Bryden as William and Kate, and Richard Glaves as a thoroughly enjoyable Harry – madly in love with radical art student Jess – all navigate the choppy waters of Bartlett’s bold experiment with terrific flair.
And if Bartlett sometimes displays a bit of a political cloth ear – for example conjuring up the kind of proletarian Labour Prime Minister we no longer have – he is still spot on in his portrayal of the ruthless survival instinct, learned at the Queen’s knee, that finally compels William both to confront his father, and to demand that his brother knuckle under to his royal destiny. The play is often a little daft, but always interesting and timely; and if you see it, you’ll find you have plenty to argue about on the way home – notably what should happen to the ancient institution the Queen has nurtured with such care, once she is gone.
Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances today.