A review by Lorna Pearson of ‘King Charles III’ by Mike Bartlett at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday February 27
Mike Bartlett’s weird and fascinating play sets out to do for the future of Britain and its monarchy what Shakespeare, his unmistakable point of reference, did for its past: remodel its given characters, override its (in Bartlett’s case, probable) facts, invent, reshape, use and abuse it into a dramatic structure concerned with questions of humanity and power that are not for an age but for a darned sight longer than any one reign.
The reckless comparison is invited: King Charles III is written in blank verse, with current colloquialisms dotted among archaisms (the now periphrastic use of ‘do’ in forming verbs, as in ‘I do consent’, proves handy in maintaining the metre), and with allusions – sometimes structural, sometimes the work of a passing phrase or momentary situation – to Macbeth, Henry IV, Richard II, Hamlet, Lear and Julius Caesar. In a different kind of homage, an implicit quotation – first visual and then expanding – to the classic unwritten tragihistory that Shakespeare died too soon to claim for his own, King Charles II, provides a terrific first-act curtain and point of departure for what follows.
In these irreverent (or shallow) times all this could set the scene for a student send-up. It doesn’t: Bartlett has written a serious political and psychological play, in which, as in Shakespeare’s tragedies, the laughs are frequent but incidental. Richard Glaves’s pitch- and picture-perfect Prince Harry, slumming like his more distant predecessor, provides a lot of the laughs in this case: hunched and apologetically headlong as if always trying to be offstage and out of public view as soon as possible, he is a social bull among both the Windsor-Westminster bone china and the greasy-spoon polystyrene. But it will prove to be his father who is the greatest threat to both, and here Robert Powell’s haunted stare hardly needs to be confronted by his first wife’s ghost (her front-of-stage passing perhaps a misjudgment in Rupert Goold’s otherwise excellent direction) to be clearly facing on his way towards tragedy.
We all think we know that King Charles is likely to be a problem. Too disposed towards interference in affairs of state for a C21st king, too romantic – too dangerously Caroline. But how much do we know? Would he approve of – let alone officially approve – a Parliamentary bill curbing the Press’s freedom to breach the privacy of his subjects or himself in its search for news? Given what we’ve pored over in the Press about his own family affairs, we’d probably think not. Perhaps it’s partly to establish the likely break between Bartlett’s fiction and the royal soap opera we know that this King Charles, romantically convinced of the uncorruption of the state he only nominally governs, turns the other way and refuses to add his royal signature to the bill presented to him (by a wistfully Welsh-accented and shiny-pated Prime Minister with, in Tim Treloar’s forceful presence, a faintly familiar profile). Initially encouraged by a slippery Leader of the Opposition – Giles Taylor, not so much oleaginous as butter-smooth and easily spread – Charles now begins to assert one half-forgotten formal prerogative after another in an attempt to defend his first solecism and, as becomes increasingly evident, his job and his son’s and grandson’s jobs along with it.
Soon country and Crown are both in danger – from a King who longs for the best for both, and believes, like Disraeli, that the two can best look out for each other over the heads of the Parliamentary ‘barons’ who usually look out only for themselves. This is where Harry’s Eastcheap (here, Crawley) episode becomes more than the flimsy subplot some reviewers have seen in it. But does the country – represented not only by Harry’s fictional art-student girlfriend but, as the character herself reminds us, by his factual sister in law – want what the King wants for it? In one of the most immediately effective scenes, a philosophical doner-kebab merchant mourns the carving- away of the meat of Britain by the ideological cuts made by greedy politicians. But when the King revives another ancient prerogative and augments the military presence outside his palace, his attempts to protect his people from parliamentary heavy-handedness are clearly outdoing the politicians at their own game.
The play is too dense and tightly constructed to do justice in a review. Indeed, it may well age better than one viewing can suggest, because to an audience of mixed Royal-watchers and exasperated republicans the almost extra-sensorily perceptible ghost of a student send-up perhaps continues to haunt the stage for a little too long. It’s disconcerting to hear serious arguments and deep feelings credited to characters whose reality usually, and inevitably, reaches the contemporary public in the form of self-satirizing caricature. The passions of the stage are private; even if the mobile phones that Bartlett is hacking into here are pure fantasy, he is – consciously – tapping into the practice that his fantasy King despises but wants to continue to permit to the Press. The perhaps only slightly more plausible fantasy that the living people portrayed here as the reshuffled tops and tails of Lady Macbeth, Prince Harry, Hamlet and the rest might one day drop into a theatre and find out what one of their subjects has made of them was sometimes naggingly embarrassing to this spectator at least. And yet once they’re all dead this kind of speculation will become another kind of fiction. My discomfort was as much a part of this particular very complex experience as Bartlett’s own privacy-breaching. I was glad to have been there last night.
Lorna Pearson 24.2.2016
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