Imagine if some time in the near future Prince Charles took the throne and if years later Shakespeare wrote a history play about the eventful reign of King Charles III. What you have in your mind right now is the play currently in its final week at the Almeida Theatre in North London. Mike Bartlett takes the place of Shakespeare and has written a modern play in the style of the bard with a contemporary twist and a cast of familiar characters. This is a play in which the Duchess of Cambridge (Lydia Wilson) takes on an almost Lady Macbeth-like role; a sweet but sharp woman nudging her husband towards the crown, and the ghost of Diana (Katie Brayben) stalks the minimalist stage.
The plot is clever and surprisingly relevant; the Queen is dead and Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith) is the new Monarch awaiting coronation. In his first meeting with the current Labour Prime Minister (Adam James) Charles discusses an upcoming Privacy bill that will restrict the freedom of the press and protect the general public from intrusion. The vote has already been taken in Westminster and the bill has been passed but Charles has his doubts and, after some manipulation from the Conservative leader (Nicholas Rowe), exercises the Royal Assent; the power every monarch has to veto a parliamentary bill but which hasn’t been used for well over a century.
With Charles demanding parliament reconsider the bill the Prime Minister refuses and takes this as a direct affront to democracy. Soon government is sparring with the royal family, the Windors are fighting amongst themselves, and the country is divided between republicans and royalists. Prince Harry (Richard Goulding) wants out of the family altogether to be with his new love Jess (Tafline Steen), who is suffering from press intrusion herself, Prince William (Oliver Chris) is torn between loyalty to his father and his country, and both he and Charles find themselves visited by the veiled spectre of the people’s Princess.
The conceit of the play, that of what would happen if the monarchy actually exercised their rights as head of state, forces the audience to consider what is the bigger sacrifice; Britain losing its monarchy or weakening its democratic status by allowing the royals to force government to rethink its decisions. The whole issue is made all the more current with the recent uproar that resulted when Prince Charles dared to express a negative opinion of Putin when he likened the Russian leader to Hitler last week. Should the royal family be forced to stay silent on political issues or do they have the freedom of speech we all enjoy, and how influential should their opinion be? Arguably this isn’t a hard decision for most people so perhaps the real question is whether there is a role for royals in modern society at all.
Alongside all this thought-provoking theatrics is a thoroughly enjoyable play. Whilst imitating the flow of a Shakespearian classic King Charles III plays with the form with the aid of a cheeky sense of humour and the result never feels anything less than fresh, engaging, and energetic. The cast are all superb and their characterisations of familiar faces help us to see the people that stand behind the pomp and circumstance. There was laughter, there were tears, and when all was said and done my mind was racing from an excellent evening at the theatre.
This was my first visit to the Almeida Theatre but it won’t be my last. In a space as intimate as at my beloved Donmar the audience is never far from the action and, sitting in the second row, we often found ourselves in the midst of a scene.
King Charles III is a timeless play that was both classical and contemporary and reminded me just how good theatre can be. Superb stuff.
King Charles III closes at the Almeida this Saturday and is all sold out but is getting a West End transfer to the Wyndham’s Theatre for September and October of this year with tickets going on sale soon from the Almeida website.