Tuesday, December 16, 2014

'King Charles III' at the Wyndham's Theatre, 13th December 2014

As a dyed-in-the-wool republican (FYI to Americans, not that kind of republican) Mike Bartlett's King Charles III was practically pornography.  The play bills itself as a "future history", probing the constitutional knot the United Kingdom would find itself in if we were to have a misbehaving monarch on the throne.  

We open at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.  In a solemn line the black-clad cast ominously chant their way through Jocelyn Pook's rather Philip Glass-esque Requiem.  With old Liz mouldering six feet under, Prince Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith) instantly levels up to becomes King Charles III.  

The real Charles is notorious for sticking his oar into matters that don't concern him, a tendency that's extended to its logical conclusion in Mike Bartlett's play.  We find him in a crisis of conscience over granting assent to a Government bill. His decision throws a wrench into the workings of power, setting the stage for confrontation between the Monarchy and Parliament.  This is too good a yarn to spoil later developments, but events spiral ever further into ridiculousness while maintaining a coolly logical progression.

Bustling around the periphery of the new King are the rest of the royals, each of whom have their own perspective on this crisis.  William (Oliver Chris) and Kate (Lydia Wilson) regard Charles' rebellion with strained, frustrated concern.  William follows his grandmother's maxim that inaction is a form of power and tries to observe events from a distance. Meanwhile Kate, always the smartest person in the room, spies opportunity. Harry (Richard Goulding) merely wants off the royal rollercoaster, a decision spurred by his new relationship with rebellious student Jessica (Tafline Steen), who introduces him to the exotic pleasures of shopping at Sainsbury's and eating at Wagamamas.  

But the centre of the play is always Charles, who in Bartlett's hands proves to be a fascinatingly complex dramatic figure.  Lost in a confusion of his own making he bumbles from one calamity to another, wallowing in self-importance and collapsing into delusion.  Pigott-Smith plays him as a walking paradox, a man who's built a shaky personality upon his warped conscience and suddenly being told to suppress it in order to be King. As the consequences of his actions mount he quickly reaches the limits of both his character and his intellect. Before we know it he's convinced himself that he's a representative of the people's will against an unrepresentative Government, begins dressing like a tinpot dictator and puts tanks in front of Buckingham Palace.  

Look at that great gormless expression.
Bartlett's Charles is the definition of stunted growth.  He's spent 66 years sitting on the bench awaiting his moment in the limelight, and this wait has rendered him servile and impotent.  In his submissive body language and crap self-deprecation he increasingly echoes none other than Alan Partridge.  Pigott-Smith approaches him with a fascinating, uncomprehending stupidity, someone who continually grasps the wrong end of the stick, doesn't see the consequences of his actions and who, most importantly, completely lacks initiative.  

This is the spikiest jab in Bartlett's arsenal, that the purported ruler is always sternly exactly told what to do. Even when he thinks he's had a bold new idea he's acting on someone else's will.  This bovine dumbness is especially ironic given that Charles comes to see himself as embodying a modern form of divine right to rule over his subjects.  What's drummed into the audience is that you wouldn't trust this man to run a chip shop, let alone a country.  Hell, you wouldn't trust him to work the fryer.

Eventually you come to see this joke embodied not just in Charles as an individual monarch, but in the very idea of monarchy itself.  The notion that someone has the right to rule purely because they splurted out of the the right womb is something that should have become extinct in this country when Cromwell lopped the head off Charles 1.0.  Bartlett's eventual punchline is the characters realising the monarchy can only exist by becoming a theme park attraction; William, Kate and Harry ending up with about as much free will as their waxwork doppelgangers in Madame Tussauds.

While Pigott-Smith is outstanding, the supporting cast are no slouches either.  Stand-outs are Richard Goulding's Prince Harry, who has a tragically clear understanding of his role in the Royal household; that of court jester, resigned to a life of being made fun of by the newspapers and ending up as the faintly embarrassing uncle to the nation.  But it's Lydia Wilson's Kate that surprised me the most, mainly because I found myself quite liking her. Amongst a gaggle of dunces she's at least clear minded in her ambition,  like a 21st century Lady Macbeth. 

Bartlett's core vision idea of a "future history" couldn't be better realised.  Chuckling away at a Royal satire like this made me feel like a groundling in Shakespeare's Globe.  And boy oh boy are these privileged people and medieval ideas in sore need of a comprehensive dramatic kicking.  King Charles III thus becomes a laser guided satire-missile aimed at some extremely swollen egos.  If it wasn't so damn funny I'm sure it'd send the Daily Mail into convulsive fits of apoplexy.

If you're stuck for something to see over Christmas there's not much better than this on a West End stage right now.  Whenever anyone asks me what they should check out, I'm going to point them in this play's direction without a second thought.  It's ace.

King Charles III is at Wyndham's Theatre until 31st May 2014

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