Sunday, 16 December 2018

King Charles III

BEWARE! If you’re the type of person who buys commemorative plates of William and Kate from the Daily Mail then King Charles III is not for you

BEWARE! If you’re the type of person who buys commemorative plates of William and Kate from the Daily Mail then King Charles III is not for you.

You will be offended and probably hurt by it. But for the rest of us it’s a wonderful piece of theatre and close to brilliant.

King Charles III is written by Oxfordshire playwright Michael Bartlett and what a tasty royal mess of potage it is! It’s garnered five-star reviews all over London and won theatre awards. You wonder how on earth they have got away with such a brutal demolition of the monarchy.

This play puts words — strong words — into the mouths of Charles, William, Kate, Harry and Camilla. It creates a plausible drama out of what might happen by making what seem to be grand assumptions. And it takes liberties with the royal family in a way that would have led to the Tower at the very least in previous centuries.

The publicity pictures might lead us to think this is a satire but it’s far deeper and cleverer than that. King Charles III is written as a Shakespearean history play. It’s in verse, which sometimes might seem clunky, but no more so than the Bard’s. And it borrows heavily from Shakespeare’s works — to funny and knowing effect.

We have Kate cast as Lady Macbeth, an usurping William, a slightly maddened by circumstance Charles as Lear and tormented as Hamlet, and Harry as — what else? — Prince Hal. There are ghosts and Diana makes an appearance as a kind but actually vengeful scorned woman.

We start with the funeral of our current Queen, and the world as we know it goes downhill from there. The current royal A-team stand guard over the coffin in the same way we saw Charles, Andrew and Edward do so for the Queen Mother. We are at the end of an era and the music and solemnity reflect that.

The Queen is dead, long live the King — except he has the title but not yet the crown. That doesn’t come until the coronation; plenty of time to screw it up, then!

And we’re off to a bad start when the prime minister has his first meeting with the new king. Charles, always outspoken as the Prince of Wales, intends to carry on like that and wants to refuse royal assent to a bill on privacy.

At once the constitution — what we call a constitution, anyway — is threatened. The smoke and mirrors illusion of monarchy is about to be dispersed and seen for the empty mist it is. Of course this must eventually lead to a drastic solution — and it does. Every scene in this quite long play is conceived so well, every conversation, every situation sets out to challenge us: what good does monarchy do, what harm does it do?

The history buffs will enjoy the scene where Charles appears at the House of Commons to dissolve parliament. The irony is not wasted, especially in Oxford, where Charles I took his court after doing the same.

One exchange between William and Charles is deeply affecting: a father-son meeting with duty looming overhead and the ghost of Diana still stalking them both.

What an extraordinary piece and a fitting continuation of the Playhouse’s excellent winter programme.

Tickets for this might be hard to come by, but if you can get one then don’t waste the chance.

Oxford Playhouse, until Saturday.

Review: Mike Rowbottom

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