I didn’t have much expectation of King Charles III before we saw it, as I didn’t know much about it. I knew it had received some glowing reviews and had done very good business in the West End – and that it had won the Olivier Award for Best New Play of 2014. I knew it was written by Mike Bartlett, whose Love Love Love we had seen in 2011, which we thought was a meaty and challenging play, and largely enjoyable. It wasn’t until I arrived at the theatre and read the programme that I realised it starred Robert Powell – a big name and seasoned performer – and not until I actually started watching the play that I realised it was in blank verse; like Christopher Fry, and TS Eliot, and…Shakespeare.
Hold that discovery a moment whilst I give you a flavour of the plot. The Queen is dead, long live the King. The play opens with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and the reality for Charles that he is finally to become King. His close family and aides are there for support, but you don’t really get the sense that he is ready for the challenge. However, when he has his first regular meeting with the Prime Minister, he questions a bill he is about to sign – that of restricting the freedom of the press following all the News International phone hacking scandals (yes, Murdoch, I’m looking at you.) The PM and the King don’t see eye to eye on the bill, and with the PM refusing to give way because it has gone through both Houses of Parliament and has received the necessary backing, the King refuses to sign. This simple action – or inaction – starts a chain of events where no one backs down; and when the PM sets up another bill to make it unnecessary to have the Royal Signature for the law to be enacted, the King turns up at the House of Commons, and, as is his right, dissolves parliament.
It’s an intriguing story line, and, approached differently, could I think have made for a lively, dynamic, dramatic play which would have educated and entertained with humour, satire, characterisation and some funny lines. However, sadly, in my opinion, being chained to the sub-Shakespearean blank verse makes you link it inextricably in your mind with the Bard’s History Plays; and as Mr Bartlett isn’t Shakespeare – I doubt you’d consider him a poet – he is weighed in the balance and found wanting. As a result, this just came over to me as an immensely tedious play, hugely self-indulgent, and almost totally lacking dramatic tension.
To me it seems to be a play that doesn’t know its own identity. Is it a comedy? A straight play? A fantasy? A parody? Half the characters are real members of the Royal Family, the rest are Mr Bartlett’s inventions; that’s fine, but within the characters whom we know, some of them are impersonations (William and Kate), some are half-impersonations (Charles and Harry) and one is nothing like an impersonation (Camilla). There’s no consistency in the way the characters are presented to us. Combine that with the use of versified text, some of which rhymes, most of which doesn’t, and you get an overwhelming feeling of artificiality. The use of plainsong, the use of masks (including a Fluck and Law Spitting Image Charles which I thought was just woeful and killed any vestige of dignity to which the play might have had pretensions) and the use of equally cringe-making ghosts (not so much Hamlet’s Father but William’s Mother) means there’s no attempt at reality and, I felt, barely any connection to the audience at all. We had a long should we/shouldn’t we leave at the interval session but decided to stay because I did have a faint interest in how it was going to get resolved. However, there’s a long scene in the second act where William proposes to act as a go-between between the King and the country, and the writing is as dull as ditchwater and completely without drama; it was about this time that I decided the only way this play could be rescued would be by having Fortinbras arrive in the final scene, defeat the House of Windsor in battle and take control over the land. Not that we want Norwegian prices in this country, I confess. Mrs Chrisparkle instead decided to give up and just go to sleep, believing that giving her brain and body a well-earned rest from the rigours of the day was a much more productive way of spending those sixty minutes.
Credit where it’s due, Tom Scutt has created an imposing stage design that nicely conveys the austere grandeur of the Westminster Hall setting for lying in state, and functional parliamentary offices where constitution issues are debated with increasing incredulity. But you don’t get a feeling for any other setting, such as the opulence of the Royal Palaces or the outside world where Prince Harry might have a fling. Jocelyn Pook’s moody choral compositions for the State occasions are atmospheric and sung quite beautifully. Robert Powell is of course a fine actor with a strong stage presence, and he does bring some warmth and a sense of self-awareness to the role of Charles. Richard Glaves gives a good performance as Harry, with a suitably Sloany voice and a surprising lack of interest in Things Royal; but other than that, the performances that impress more are of the imaginary characters – Tim Treloar in great form as the Kinnock-based PM, Giles Taylor as the manipulative Leader of the Opposition and Lucy Phelps as Harry’s girlfriend Jess; part fish out of water, part wise Fool who sees the truth.
Fortinbras doesn’t turn up – shame – and I think the ending is something of a damp squib, which is saying something considering the general level of boredom that the rest of the play engenders. In the programme notes, Robert Powell says he thinks the play is a masterpiece. Well, considering it sold out the West End, is touring the country and going to both Broadway and Australia, it’s certainly convinced some people of its worth. Personally, I thought it was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I really didn’t like it. I guess it was just not my cup of Duchy Originals Organic Earl Grey.