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Review of King Charles III by Mike Bartlett

I’m very sorry to interrupt 2019 everyone, but I’m going to have to drag you kicking and screaming back into 2018 for just a few hundred words. Do you remember that bygone era? Real-life spy drama in Salisbury, scorching summer temperatures, Brexit and President Trump still both (somehow) things that are actually happening? It is wonderful then that we have our cosy little Bromley theatre to provide blissful escapism from the harrowing politics of British constitutional crises. What a treat then, when in October we got to escape to a world of British constitutional crises with Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III.

Queen Liz the Sequel is dead, and her son Charles has defied all odds and nailed the job interview to become king. With the longest reign in British history crashing to a halt right in the middle of the phone hacking scandal, the seats of power and the country are in an unstable place. The newly crowned King Charles III, raised all his life to rule, has to decide what sort of monarch he will be – follow his mother’s stoical and hands-off approach or use his power to improve the country in his own way. Cue power plays from a predatory parliament, palace staff stalking the corridors and the behind-closed-doors insecurities and scheming of the royal family members themselves all dragged to the fore.

If this all sounds a little bit Shakespearean, it is entirely by design. Bartlett writes much of the script in blank verse and essentially attempts to create a ‘modern’ Shakespeare history play. Why not? After all, much of Shakespeare’s canon is composed of hyper-fictional accounts of the real lives and events of the British monarchy, much of it recent history for the audiences who would see the shows. It sounds like a gimmick but eventually it sort of works, once one gets used to the sound of 16th century language structure referencing 21st century life. Just for good measure, a Banquo-style ghost roams around the palace, and Wills and Kate of Cambridge (Howie Ripley and Bethan Boxall) get a more than subtle injection of Mr and Mrs Scottish Play to their characters.

Obviously, this review is a little late in the day (complaints to the usual address) and it has been a while since I saw the performance. With this in mind, it would be unfair to give it the proper analytical and wittily savage critique I would normally do, and with such a large ensemble cast, many individual moments of merit have rather blurred together.

While the cast were generally very good, with some real stand-out performances from the principal royals in particular, I felt the play was wanting in some aspects. Director Pauline Armour has always been adept in co-ordinating large crowds of ensemble players, and set-piece scenes of rioting, parliamentary bickering and particular the opening funeral and closing coronation scenes were exquisitely well planned and had their own individually evocative power.

By comparison, however, the quieter scenes seemed far looser when perhaps these should have been the more tightly controlled. It’s a bugbear of mine for actors to move when there is seemingly no reason for them to do so, and many times a character would stand, walk to another part of the set and sit down again, purely for them to move with a particular line than any actual need or drive. In one truly bizarre moment, a character turned away from Charles in anger, only to immediately turn back to him and continue talking. Points for a flawlessly executed pirouette, but coupled with an unnatural writing style this unnecessary movement served to chip away at my enjoyment.

Still, this was an ambitious play – I fell in love with the script at first read and the cast were all extremely confident playing such well-recognised figures, and despite my issues above it was a great show that everyone involved should be royally proud of. Now, back to 2019. I’m sure nothing calamitous will happen this year.

~Richard Stewart~