Robert Tanitch reviews King Charles III at Wyndham’s Theatre, London.
There was a time, not that long ago, when the Lord Chamberlain, who was in charge of the censorship of the stage, ruled no British sovereign could be portrayed on the stage until 100 years after his or her accession.
How things have changed since stage censorship ended in 1968. Well over 40 actresses have played Queen Elizabeth, the most notable being Prunella Scales and Helen Mirren.
In Mike Bartlett’s play the Queen has just died. The action is set in the days leading up to the coronation of Charles, who has no desire to be “a pretty plastic picture with no meaning.” The Labour government wants him to sign an act of parliament which restricts the freedom of the press. He refuses to do so. The PM tells him his mother always signed.
The clever thing and what gives Bartlett’ s play its wit, its authority and its historical clout is that it is written in blank verse. The Shakespearian iambics pentameter gives the drama an extra dimension.
Essential serious, emotionally and intellectually satisfying, King Charles III raises serious issues about the monarchy in the 21st century. Charles feels he has three rights – the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and above all the right to warn – and he intends to exercise them.
There is a great scene when Charles enters the House of Commons and dissolves parliament. There is another when he is betrayed by his family. Tim Piggott-Smith is excellent: a heroic figure becomes more and more tragic as the play goes on.
The acting is exemplary throughout. Oliver Chris looks so like Prince William it is uncanny. Kate (Lydia Wilson) is portrayed as a driving force in their marriage. Harry (Richard Goulding) wants to be a commoner and have a job like everybody else. He falls in love with a dead common left-wing art student and discovers Sainsbury’s.
Rupert Goold’s hugely entertaining production, acted on a stripped bare stage with a raised purple dais, looks exactly as it did when it was at the Almeida earlier in the year; even its bare brick walls have been recreated.
King Charles III is recommended in the strongest terms. It is the best and wittiest play about a constitutional crisis since Bernard Shaw’s The Applecart. Don’t wait. Book now.