Review: Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, at the Almeida theatre

Lydia Wilson as Kate Middleton, Oliver Chris as Prince William. Photo Johan Persson

Lydia Wilson as Kate Middleton, Oliver Chris as Prince William. Photo Johan Persson

What’s in a premise? The tag line for Mike Bartlett’s new play King Charles III is “a future history play” and he goes at it no holds barred and makes good on that promise. The Queen is dead, prince Charles becomes Charles III, and then what? What will happen? What can happen? The play draws much of its energy from making that imaginative leap, and Bartlett follows through, jumping from stone to stone, drawing the inevitable conclusions. (The events of the play have a hardwired logic but are unlikely. Bartlett’s trick is to make then look like a parallel universe and not a magic mirror. Maybe his inspiration is The Adventures of Luther Arkwright as much as Shakespeare).  Bartlett plays effortlessly with verse and Shakespearean references and the result is very very clever.

In fact, a tad too clever.  The play can’t resist winking to the audience, as a result the dynamic in the room often turned toxic. (At times, I couldn’t tell whether a scene was played for laughs or the audience was laughing with no good reason). The best scenes were the ones when something real was at stake: William and Charles locking heads around the personal and the political, Kate Middleton becoming a force to be reckoned with. At other times, underbutlers and hanger-ons were playing a story out of Spitting Image.

Rupert Goold’s direction stays away from fireworks, a good choice I think, as it puts the play in solid ground. The set is simple and elegant, invoking both grandeur and terror and damp limited lives.

Tim Pigott-Smith’s Charles combines a fair amount of intelligence with traces of anxiety and disappointment, like a sheen of sweat permanently present under his skin. Oliver Chris’ William becomes more unhappy as he becomes more assertive, a finely tuned and subtle change that finds its logical expression in the last scene. Lydia Wilson’s Kate Middleton is a triumph, radiant with intelligence and ambition as she discovers her power with no neurosis, malice or self-doubt.  Richard Goulding’s portrayal of Harry is limited by the script, a characterisation far too dependent on public perception to make an impact. Adam James as prime minister and Nicholas Rowe as leader of the opposition are playful in their similarities and differences, sparring with and complimenting each other. (In an interesting twist, government is Labour and the politicians are all fictional. Maybe Bartlett will contemplate anything but a world where the current crop of politicians are around for long and Tories win another election).

Clever, imaginative, confident and with a real punch when it wants to, Mike Bartlett’s new play has the potential for something great but it never quite gets there.

P.S. References that I alone find amusing:at some point one of the characters says: “what? like an intervention?” Was that a too subtle reference to Mike Bartlett’s next play? I ‘d like to think so.

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