Imagine that you have been waiting for something your entire life. That you knew, no matter what else happened in the world, your destiny was preordained and nothing could be done to change it. Then suddenly, you are catapulted into that position and you are in charge. That’s what happens to the main character in Mike Bartlett’s play King Charles III which has just opened at the Tower Theatre.
The Queen is dead and, in accordance with tradition, the country has a new monarch in the shape of her eldest son King Charles III (Martin South). After a lifetime of waiting, the new king, supported by his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (Jo Nevin) is ready to take up the reins of monarchy and rule until it he is no more and the succession is handed on to the next generation in the shape of his eldest son Prince William, Duke of Cambridge (Dan Draper) and his popular wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (Helen McGill). One of the first things that Charles has to do is have a meeting with his Prime Minister (Jess Hammett) who comes to the palace to discuss matters of state. But the King wants to discuss a new press regulation bill which has been sent for his signature. And here we hit on a problem, for although the bill has passed both houses of Parliament, the King is loath to sign it into law and would like to see it amended. There are other changes afoot with the king talking openly with the Leader of the Opposition (Robert Orchard). Even Prince Harry (Ben Grafton) wants to see change, especially as he has met a rather lovely normal girl by the name of Jess (Sal Fulcher). The change of monarch means that these are indeed turbulent times, and conversations held in a drawing room in Buckingham Palace have implications for the new king, his government and all the people of the United Kingdom and beyond.
One of the things that always makes me smile is when a news programme includes a constitutional expert in it. Why does this make me laugh? Because the UK is fairly unusual in the world by not having a written constitution. We are governed by a system of precedent, patronage and tradition and Mike Bartlett exploits this fully in King Charles III to the point where, as you watch, you can’t help but ask yourself what would happen if the reigning monarch refused to sign a bill into law. A pretty impressive starting point for a play you might think, but there is so much more to the story of royal shenanigans and, in many ways, King Charles III is the play Shakespeare would write were he around today – or at least in 2014 when it was originally written. The connection with the Bard is a strong one as Mike has written the play in blank verse with soaring monologues, particularly from the King and the Duchess of Cambridge, and wonderfully descriptive sentences such as “Without my voice and spirit I am dust. This is not what I want, but what I must.” However, one issue with the writing is that the author really doesn’t seem to know royal protocol that well – who gets called by what title, when to bow, etc. For me, this does distract slightly from the flow of the play but maybe this just reflects earlier aspects of my life where we were taught this stuff.
Turning to the actors and what an amazing cast. Helen McGill really shone as Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge not only in appearance but in mannerisms as she took the Catherine we all believe we know and love, and turned her into a very modern-day Lady Macbeth but without any of the guilt suffered by that lady. This was a riveting performance of a woman in total command of herself and her husband. Similarly, Martin South has Charles mannerisms and speech patterns down pat and, whilst looking younger than the man himself, really gives a sense of authenticity to the role. Finally, while singling out actors, I want to mention Ben Grafton who, during the highly emotional confrontation scene near the end, actually looked visibly upset and tearful at the events going on around him. I do have to say that the entire cast were excellent with the ensemble playing a whole range of parts and Ben Kynaston impressing me with his ability to be immovable in many scenes in the ay you would expect an under-butler to behave. Finally a quick word of praise to the Boiler House Singers for their wonderfully appropriate musical opening at the Queen’s funeral.
Director Ruth Sullivan has a lot of space to play with on Max Batty’s set which is dominated by a very unsettling picture of Queen Elizabeth – keep half an eye on it all the way through as I’m sure the eyes moved during the performance. Kathleen Morrison’s costumes really added to the authenticity – and the crown at the coronation scene was a stunning reproduction of the Imperial State Crown. I also loved the attention to detail – Kate’s engagement ring, Charles’s little signet ring, the letters and newspapers and the fact that when tea was poured, it was hot with steam coming off and genuine milk added. Those little touches really help to sell a production and stop the mind from picking up on inconsistencies that can ruin a play. So bravo, to all of the team responsible for props and setting the stage.
Overall, King Charles III is a first-rate production that is definitely worth a trip to North London to go and see. Whilst we don’t normally mention the theatre itself, there was something about this one, with its high ceiling that helped the production really feel at home. The running time of around two and half hours, including interval, flew by as there was just so much to take in and I was captivated with the whole production. Whilst I don’t think things will ever pan out in the way portrayed, there is certainly plenty to take in, enjoy and contemplate in this first-rate production.
Review by Terry Eastham
King Charles III is a modern Shakespearian classic – a play in five acts, beautifully written in a combination of blank verse and prose, and featuring all the drama, comedy, intrigue and political machinations one might expect from the bard.
It takes place in an imagined future, immediately after the funeral of the Queen, and explores the nature of ambition, democracy and the rôle of our monarchy.
First performed at the Almeida Theatre in 2014 with Tim Pigott-Smith in the title rrôlele, it won Critics’ Circle and Olivier awards for Best New Play. It transferred to the West End’s Wyndham Theatre and was adapted for the BBC in 2017.
King Charles III: Martin South
Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall : Jo Nevin
William, Duke of Cambridge: an Draper
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge: Helen McGill
Harry, Prince Henry of Wales: Ben Grafton
Jess: Sal Fulcher
Evans, Prime Minister: Jess Hammett
Stevens, Leader of the Opposition: Robert Orchard
James Reiss: Alistair Maydon
Ensemble: Annemarie Fearnley, Jonathan Wober, Nigel Oram, Ben Kynaston, Sergio Cittadino, Sabrina Asrafova, Sarah Cotton
Director: Ruth Sullivan
Set Design: Max Batty
Costume Design: Kathleen Morrison
Lighting Design: Rob Hebblethwaite
Sound Design: Ruth Sullivan and Laurence Tuerk
Composer: Tara Creme
Stage Manager: Roanne Insley
Assistant Director: Christopher Little
ASMs: Jacqui Dickson, Jonathan Brandt
Sound Operator: Laurence Tuerk
Lighting Operator: Emily Carmichael
Technical Coordinator: Laurence Tuerk
King Charles III
by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Ruth Sullivan