'King Charles III' review or 'Shall I be Mother?'

'King Charles III', Mike Bartlett
Almeida Theatre, 11th April 2014

On first glance, ‘King Charles III’ should just be a bit of a good fun. It is a satirical glimpse at the future of the Royal Family, contained in the form of a Shakespearean history play. Think ‘Spitting Image’ mixed with ‘The Thick of It’ and ‘Macbeth’. But what is so striking and thrilling about Mike Bartlett’s play is just how dangerous it feels. Many of us might consider the Royal Family a harmless and anarchic institution; but why, then, does it feel like such a risk, even sacrilege, to lampoon them on stage?

It is the structure that sets this play apart. This could’ve been merely a smart and timely satire of the Royal Family but the use of a Shakespearean framework transforms Bartlett’s work into a deeply textured and provocative play. It is a structure which allows Bartlett to throw up countless questions – about the relationship between Britain, the monarchy, Shakespeare, ceremony and tradition - without appearing to try too hard at all.

Initially, Rupert Goold’s production comes across as a relatively light-hearted affair; something to tickle our funny bones but that will flitter away as soon as we leave the theatre. We begin with Queen’s funeral which, although sombre and steeped in ceremony, allows for some thoroughly silly moments. Tim Piggott Smith, as Prince Charles – all blank smiles, imploring eyes and stiff arm movements – offers a flummoxed monologue to the audience; ‘They expect I’ll have an opinion there, all good to go!’ This is safe ground so far; a gentle poke at an easy target.

Other soft targets quickly emerge. Harry (Richard Goulding) – as always – is good for a laugh. After meeting a ‘commoner’, Harry excitedly informs his aide, ‘James, we went to Sainsbury!’ William (Oliver Chris) and Kate (Lydia Wilson) are cardboard figures, beautiful and stiff, with robotic waves and smiles. There are easy jokes in these early scenes; a particularly plum gag comes with a meeting between Charles and the Prime Minister (Adam James), in which Charles twinkingly offers tea with the line, ‘Shall I be mother?’

But even in these harmless early exchanges something deeper and more complex lingers. The dialogue is in verse, which throws up a number of interesting ideas. The rigidly structured verse emphasizes the formality the Royals are forced to cling to, even in their most private and painful moments. In this respect, then, the verse prompts some sympathy towards the Royals. But this rather grand form of dialogue also exposes the gulf between expectations and reality, when it comes to the Royals. The frequently shallow exchanges between the Royals sound hopelessly lightweight and inadequate when wrapped up in verse. We long for bigger and better characters, who might prove clever and powerful enough to fill out this imposing form of speech. One begins to realise what a strange position the Royals occupy, hovering somewhere between fiction and reality. Today’s Royals are a creation from another age. They are, in many people’s opinion, anachronistic works of fiction; Shakespearean heroes, no longer with a role to play. Only, the trouble is, they are also contemporary people. It creates an unavoidable mismatch; an awkward gap that the Royals have been trying, with varying success, to bridge for many years.

Rupert Goold holds an impressively straight line with his production. This is as muted a Goold show I’ve seen in a long time, in terms of visual theatrics. Goold recognises that it is the deceptive simplicity of this piece – the shifting relationship between the uncertain Royals and the bold Shakespearean roles they must play – that is the dramatic centre of this piece. There is no need to embellish such a tightly conceived production. Goold and designer Tom Scutt keep things simple. The stage is kept relatively bare and the only stand-out prop is a gently shimmering and ancient mural that encircles the stage. When the light shines brightly, screaming faces – or are they smiling – emerge from the band of gold.  

At first, the audience sounds nervous; it’s as if we are all a little shocked but pleased to be watching this clever, ‘naughty’ satire. What a joy it is to laugh at this institution we have indulged for so long! But those laughs begin to dry up as the struggle within the monarchy intensifies and Charles and William battle for the throne. As the Royals fight for their birthright, they don’t seem quite so silly anymore. They grow into their roles. The dialogue starts to sound a little less awkward, the verse clicks into gear and that surrounding mural, with the gathered crowd, seems to glow.

By the end of the play, when the King’s coronation arises, the ceremony is imbued with a strange and unexpected magic. Bartlett’s careful adherence to Shakespearean tradition has allowed the characters to grow in stature. A steady and faithful respect for tradition has created something unexpected yet irrefutable. These people that we laughed at are now standing in front of us and commanding our attention. Without realising it, we have – at least temporarily – been seduced by the Royal’s story. By sticking to the rules and refusing to laugh at themselves the Royals, against all the odds, are still standing. We can laugh at them all we like – but we’re still watching. 


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