Get thee to the Wyndham’s, for future history is being minted — and solid gold it be. The Queen is dead, long live the King! But soft, which Windsor wally will ascend the vacant throne? And how smooth the transition after three score years of Elizabethan stability?
These and other quandaries are poséd in Mike Bartlett’s play King Charles III, and poséd they are well, in spoofy couplets also, so forgiveth us for indulging in a little Shakespeare-lite.
The play doth take up residence among the karaoke musicals that do litter the West End, though far more than mere tourist-bait is this glorious late summer show. It arriveth with much pomp and critical trumpeting, hard upon its jubilant first run in Islington’s Almeida, cast with lookalikes who doth transcend that qualification with truly soaring performances (three cheers for casting director Joyce Nettles and director Rupert Goold).
The story starts not with muse of fire, but Charles, the prince of plants, dealing (badly) with the aftermath of dear mummy’s death (Prince Philip having long-since shuffled off his mortal coil). Tim Pigott-Smith plays poor Charlie like Polonius promoted to the role of monarch-to-be, bewildered he is there at all despite waiting so many moons for his moment i’ the sun.
‘Tis a clever counterfeit, full of royal tics familiar, offering a frivolous lampooning for the groundlings lucky enough to snag themselves a ticket (for sell-out this great play will, and sell-out post-haste, mark you). Equally mirthsome are the other cream-faced loons who live in Buckingham Palace. Oliver Chris plays Will the weakling, Lydia Wilson is creepy Kate, Margot Leicester a cloying Camilla, and Richard Goulding, especially good as a confuséd hooray Harry.
The play doth fondly mock the meat-headed monarchs it feeds on, lining them up to be roasted on the barbecue of satire. One wry aside has a humble kebab-seller compare the country not to a summer's day, but a rotating doner being shorn of the parts that once made it great — honour, dignity, social services, Scotland — all trimmed and stuffed in a pitta with salad and chilli sauce.
Though perhaps the first half be light, affording similar pleasures as Alison Jackson's photos or an episode of Spitting Image, the plot soon transforms and a constitutional crisis envelops the Windsor clan, driving the drama forward til it be as satisfying as a St Swithin's Day banquet. Wisdom replaces waggish wit and things turn tragi-comical. Then Piggot-Smith becomes most Lear-like as his upstart progeny try to usurp his throne.
And for all the channelled republican rhetoric there are enough counter-arguments to cheer any royalist — the balance makes it better, richer, fully human. So if you don't shed a tear for Charles by the end, you truly must have a heart as hard as the Stone of Scone.
The issue that jeopardises the Royals — press freedom — is also a master-stroke. 'Tis one both topical and eternally-relevant for an institution destined to live under the scorching magnifying glasses of cruel newsmen and women. It did raise the hackles of the hacks arrayed for press night yesterday, especially the realm’s two jesters-in-chief: Jeremy Clarkson (whose head doth resemble a bladder full of custard) and AA Gill (who looketh verily like a sandblasted wart-hog). But, let’s not be churlish, the play’s the thing and indeed it does catch the conscience of the (future?) king.
King Charles III runs at the Wyndham’s Theatre, prices vary for entry.
Londonist didst see this play on a ticket complimentary.