Our monarchy’s so cute, isn’t it? With all the waving and the clothes and the nice houses. And those quaint statutes which mean no Parliamentary bill can become law without the monarch’s assent, or the way only the monarch can dissolve Parliament or appoint the Prime Minister. So adorable, so — wait, what?
We’ve become so used to our current Queen and her dutiful obedience to tradition that many of us don’t realise it is only tradition that prevents abuse of these laws. It’s by tradition that the monarch appoints the Prime Minister they’re supposed to, always signs off on laws and doesn’t randomly dissolve Parliament on a whim. If our Head of State goes rogue there’s nothing in law to stop them. It’s only a century since George V threatened to stuff the Lords with friendly peers to get a bill passed and only 15 years since the Queen — acting on the advice of government — invoked her powers to stop a bill being debated in the House of Commons. The bill wanted to take the power to authorise military strikes on Iraq away from the Queen (de facto, Tony Blair) and give it to Parliament. So much for ceremonial.
Mike Bartlett’s new play imagines the first acts of King Charles III after Elizabeth II’s death. Charles disagrees with a new bill on press regulation and — with a bit of egging on from the opposition — withholds his assent. With the King blocking the democratic process all hell breaks loose and quickly becomes a fight for the survival of the monarchy itself. (The plot isn’t such a stretch. The Guardian has been trying for nine years to secure publication of letters from Prince Charles to government ministers, lobbying for change to official policies. Will he tone it down when he has the crown?)
Bartlett’s stroke of genius is to write the dialogue in verse, immediately creating an heir to Shakespeare’s history plays. We have a tragic King undone by a character flaw, a Lady Macbeth figure in Kate, a ghost, a pair of star cross’d lovers and even Prince Hal antics from his modern namesake Prince Harry. But this is verse from 21st century Britain, with words like ‘botox’ and ‘singleton’. There are a few aural clangers but on the whole it works; nowhere more so than in the climactic confrontation between Charles and William, which is as poetic as the deposition scene in Richard II and as powerful as the father-son set-to between Brick and Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
The magnificent text is matched by the performances. Tim Pigott-Smith creates a very sympathetic Charles, who only wants to do what is right but is also captivated by power after waiting so long. Oliver Chris, better known for comedic roles, plays a William who grows in authority and confidence. Lydia Wilson‘s Kate is clever, self-aware and ambitious while Richard Goulding nabs most of the laughs as Harry. The direction is as bold and energetic as you’d expect from Rupert Goold and Paul Arditti‘s sound design is all encompassing and at one point nearly gave the guy sitting next to us a heart attack.
If there’s one flaw, it’s that having the fought-over bill be about privacy and press freedom means that how much empathy — or otherwise — you have for Charles is largely decided before you even walk in the theatre, by how you already feel about Leveson. But this aside, the play will fill your tiny proletarian mind with questions: when so much power rests in the hands of a single person, should that person be decided by an accident of birth? How have these archaic laws survived so long in the modern era? What’s the function of royalty these days anyway? Combine that with a barnstorming production and it’s almost enough to kickstart a revolution.
King Charles III is on at the Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street N1 1TA until 31 May. Tickets £9-£36. For more information and to book see the Almeida Theatre website. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary press ticket.