Robert Tanitch reviews King Charles III at Almeida Theatre, London N1
Mike Bartlett describes King Charles III as a future history play and it is the best and wittiest British play about a constitutional crisis since Bernard Shaw’s The Applecart written in 1928. The surprise is that it is written in blank verse. The dialogue is in cod-Shakespearian iambics and there are references to Hamlet, Richard II, Henry IV and even Macbeth.
The play opens with Queen Elizabeth’s funeral and the chanting of Angus Dei. The action is set in the days leading up to the coronation – or will it be abdication? The labour government wants Charles to sign an act of parliament which restricts the freedom of the press. He refuses to do so and then ups the stakes by dissolving parliament and calling for an election. Charles has no desire to be a puppet-king, a mere figurehead.
Some members of the audience presume they are meant to laugh and laugh in the wrong places and behave as if they are watching Spitting Image. The play is amusing but it is essential serious, emotionally and intellectually, and it raises serious issues
Charles is sympathetically written and sympathetically acted by Tim Piggott-Smith. The vocal and physical mannerisms are not exaggerated. It is a very fine performance. Tom Robertson is the PM. Nicholas Rowe is the devious leader of the opposition.
Oliver Chris looks so like Prince William it is uncanny. William is torn between his love for his father and his duty to his country. There is a magnificent tirade when Charles accuses him of siding with his mother against him
Kate (Lydia Wilson) is portrayed as a driving force, ambitious for herself; no plastic doll, she, and extremely manipulative. Harry (Richard Goulding) wants to be a commoner and falls in love with a dead common art student and discovers Sainsbury’s. The Ghost of Diana (with black veil) appears and tells both Charles and William that he will be the greatest king.
Rupert Gold’s highly entertaining production is acted on a stripped bare stage with a raised purple dais. The acting is exemplary throughout. The final scene carries an unexpected tragic punch.