Robert Powell

Robert Powell as King Charles III clutching on to Walter Bagehot's The English Constitution of 1867 which declared the sovereign had three rights, to be consulted; to encourage and to warn

King Charles III

Birmingham Rep

*****

THE trials of our likely future king produces one of those intriguing what if dramas.

You know the sort of thing, what if we had lost the Battle of Britain and Hitler had won the war? What if Guy Fawkes had succeeded or Richard III won at Bosworth, Harold held firm at Hastings or in this case, what if Charles becoming king would lead to the greatest constitutional crisis since the abdication of his great uncle, Edward VIII in 1936.

With the Queen becoming the regal equivalent of Wayne Rooney, he top scorer for England, she top Royal for longevity, Mike Bartlett’s play looks beyond her reign to her inevitable demise, the opening of the play, with a sombre, candlelit Agnus Dei, and the succession of Charles.

And what a Charles. Robert Powell is just superb in the role. There is no impersonation of the Charles we all know, or his mannerisms; Powell shuns caricature to make the new King into a real person. We see a man, a pensioner already remember, who has waited and devoted all his life to being king, a man born to rule.

Yet his first act as monarch is supposed to be the rubber stamping of a privacy bill into law with the Royal Assent – except Charles has reservations. In its William and Katepresent from Charles believes it is a dangerous restriction of the freedom of the Press and asks the Labour Prime Minister, Mr Evans  to reconsider some of its provisions, sowing the seeds of a clash that will threaten not only Charles but the monarchy itself.

Charles and his family, as we all know, have suffered plenty of often unwarranted intrusion at the hands of the Press yet in a moving speech the new King accepts that that is part of the price of a free Press that can safeguard and protect us against Government excess and corruption. All he asks is that some of his reservations are considered. Conscience over constitution.

Jennifer Bryden as Kate and Ben Righton as William

To the Prime Minister it is meddling with the king no more than a ceremonial embellishment to the will of Parliament; to Charles it is Parliament which is the embellishment, an optional extra like SatNav in a car, useful, but unnecessary for the car to function.

Tim Treloar’s Evans is a believable, dour, Welsh socialist, a Republican at heart but he is a paragon of virtue against the devious Mr Stevens, the Tory leader of the opposition, who is not just two faced, but each face probably has two faces as well.

Giles Taylor is suitably Machiavellian, suggesting, persuading the King in private, encouraging him on a path that would certainly be the best for the Conservative party if perhaps not the wisest course for a king. In public it is another face of the slippery, smarmy Stevens, attacking the king and siding with Evans in the battle of Parliament against the Crown – with one eye on public opinion and another on using the King to manufacture an election. A politician through and through.

Amid the politic we have the domestic with Penelope Beaumont as Camilla, a strong supportive wife offering perhaps not the best advice, and then enter William and Kate, played convincingly, by Ben Righton and Jennifer Bryden.

We find William indecisive and torn between loyalty to a regal trinity of father, king or monarchy, but behind him is Kate, ambitious and scheming, who pushes him in the direction she wants him to go.

And then there is hedonistic Harry, lad about town, party animal, played with a rakish air by Richard Glaves, that is until Harry met not Sally in this case but Jess, a Republican left leaning art student from Purley, and falls in love.

Lucy Phelps gives her Jess a strange mix of defiance and vulnerability, a Cinderella to Harry’s Prince, yet perhaps they both know, in the end, Cinderella was just a fairy tale.

Flitting around in the background is the King’s right hand man, private secretary James Reiss, played by Dominic Jephcott. One is left to question where his loyalty lies, to the king, or to the crown or to himself.

There is a strangely moving moment when Harry, escaped from the Palace, finds himself in a kebab shop about to close and the bloke serving, played by Parth ThakHarry and Jeserar, talks about people being frightened as they don’t know where the live any more after cuts in the NHS, armed forces and so on “When does Britain get so cut down, that it’s not Britain anymore?”

If this were a Royal PR exercise than Charles would win hands down, our sympathies lie with him all the way, helped by the fact no journalist would support any Government interference in what appears in print – we are, after all, only 33rd in the World’s Press Freedom index and that is without new legislation.

Lucy Phelps as Jess and Richard Glaves as Harry

William fares less well, betrayal never goes down well in the opinion polls, while Kate might be the decisive voice but she is the clear villain of the piece; Playboy Harry first finds some redemption but ultimately find his calling and loses any sympathy gained in one final speech when he is revealed as never being one of the people but just another one of them.

The first half is believable the second less so in that political unrest and constitutional crisis would go largely unnoticed outside Westminster unless it clashed with X-Factor or Strictly Come Dancing, but it is still an interesting proposition and, despite being fiction, raises many thoughtful contemporary issues from Freedom of the Press to the role of the monarchy in a democracy. Whether you agree with Bartlett’s view of future history hardly matters, this is a gripping political thriller of our times in its own right.

Bartlett’s script is very Shakespearesque, much in blank verse, and indeed there are obvious elements drawn from the likes of Hamlet, we even have the ghost of Diana telling both Charles and William they will be the greatest king ever, along with hints of Macbeth, Lear and the Henrys, with Harry a latter-day Prince Hal.

It is at times witty, at times wonderfully funny but most of all it is a riveting play, a what if par excellence with some clever twists along the way. Rupert Goold’s direction keeps everything tense and under control on a splendid set from Tom Scutt, an exposed brick roundhouse with a frieze of faces illuminated whenever monarch or politician address the nation, with scenes changed merely by Jon Clark’s clever lighting.

A cast of 12 cannot be faulted in what is a first class production; this is theatre pretty near as good as it gets. To 19-09-15

Roger Clarke

08-09-15 

King Charles III tours to Malvern Theatres 2-7 November.

BOOKING  REP Malvern

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