King Charles III is one of the best modern plays I have seen. I’ve certainly not seen enough modern plays to make an authoritative judgement as to its quality, but I found play and production – running at London’s Almeida Theatre until the end of May 2014 – outstanding. The play is by Mike Bartlett, and bills itself as a ‘future history’. It tells of a time, maybe just a year or two from now, when Queen Elizabeth II has died and King Charles III ascends to the British throne. It is written in the manner of a Shakespearean drama, in its theme of the state of things seen through the lives on monarchs, and in its construction. It is a five act play and written in blank verse with iambic pentameter (five stresses to a line). A wittier or more appropriate dramatic conceit it would be hard to imagine. Very simply, it works.
The play’s theme is the nature of constitutional monarchy in the present age. Charles becomes King and is frustrated at the purely ceremonial function of his role. As when he was a prince, he wants to make his opinions known, and now he wants the opportunity to influence through the wielding of power. The opportunity arises when the Labour government seeks the royal signature on a bill legislating on press freedoms. Charles refuses to sign it, and sparks off a constitutional crisis. The nation is divided into those that support his stance and those that rebel against it. Tanks are parked on the grounds of Buckingham Palace, as Charles’s convictions reveal their ugly side, while the government puts forward a bill that will end the necessary royal approval of new legislation. The impasse is broken by William, Duke of Cambridge, initially reluctant but finally egged on by his wife, who forces his father to abdicate the throne and becomes King himself, restoring the monarchy to the ceremonial status perfected by his grandmother. A subplot concerns Prince Harry falling in love with a commoner, planning to renounce his royal status to be with her, but in the end changing his mind.
All of this is great fun, and could have been simply the subject of a mocking satire. It is the great strength of Barlett’s play (and Rupert Goold’s astute direction) that the tale works as high drama, with the emotions suitably engaged, and the action grounded in credibility. These extraordinary things could happen. Charles, as Prince of Wales, is known to write regularly to ministers of state putting forward his opinions – not always very welcome – on a wide range of issues. It is quite plausible that as king he may be less accepting than his mother of the passive role of the constitutional monarch. The abdication crisis of course echoes that of Edward VIII, who like Charles III gave up the throne before his coronation. The characters of the royals, from the conscience-stricken Harry yearning to be free, to the calculating Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, operating behind her ‘plastic doll’ facade to promote the interests of her husband and herself, all chime with a popular sense of how these royals might actually be. In reality they may be dull and stupid; in our imaginations they could be the stuff of Shakespearean drama.
It is Shakespeare that makes this play work. There are obvious, sometimes mocking, borrowings from his plays, notably Macbeth, the Henry IV plays and King Lear. The dissolute Harry is easily connected with Prince Hal, while the ghost of Diana haunts Charles and William, telling each that they will be the greatest king of all, in the manner of Macbeth‘s witches. I wasn’t so sure about the use of Diana – more of a grotesque than a believable human being, to my mind – but it’s an amusing joke for all that. Other Shakespeare homages include comic rustics, and passages describing action that it is easier not to stage.
But the chief joy is the verse. There is a long history of writers who have tried to produce plays in a Shakespearean manner, and produced quite dreadful results, both because they lacked the stagecraft and because they became pompously intoxicated with the curlicues of iambic pentameter: among then Bulwer Lytton (Richelieu, 1839), Alfred Tennyson (Queen Mary, 1875) and Stephen Phillips (Ulysses, 1902). Mike Barlett has mastered the simplicities of such verse. He uses it to enable his characters to express their thoughts most clearly. He avoids the temptation of aping Shakespearean use of imagery, and deftly laughs at pretension by throwing in modern-day language and concerns. This passage from a set piece soliloquy from Kate is a good example of his technique:
I have ambition for my husband yes
And hope my son will grow the finest King
But if I must put up with taunts, and make
So public everything I am, then I
Demand things for myself, I ask no less
Than power to achieve my will in fair
Exchange for total service to the State.
Yes this is what,enthroned, that I will do,
Not simply help my husband in his crown
But wear one of my own.
But here’s my husband, he’s been on the phone.
Act 4, Scene 3
This passage, where Charles agonises over his role and seeks out conformation of his function from Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution shows how effectively Bartlett combines the poetic and the demotic:
I have been through the archive many times
But read as King each word seems made afresh.
I have been seeking moments which relate
Precisely to the current state of play
Our English law is based on precedent
And when I’m called to make my case I must
Have all the facts to hand, examples of
When monarchs in the past have also done
The same as I, or very near. And so.
Here’s Walter Bagehot, eighteen sixty-seven,
Explaining changes to balance of
The Crown and State. I read it as a child.
One line stands out: Bagehot explains that now
The monarch’s mostly ceremonial
And only can expect, from hereon in:
The right to be consulted (which I’ve not)
The right to encourage (which is all I do),
And most importantly the right to warn.
‘The Right to Warn’ so warning is the thing
It’s only what I do, I warn, but even that
I’m told’s too much and so must tolerate
This constant fuzz of bright white noise
The emanates from out the baying mob.
Act 5, Scene 1
Our modern stage lacks poetry. The general trend throughout the 20th and 21st centuries has been towards realistic speech, a continuum that links Galworthy to Rattigan to Osborne to Hare. This is despite the stage being a unnatural place, where the heightened ought to have precedence over the literal. Television drama fulfills the public need for pseudo-realistic language, and while modern theatre has become adept at arresting imagery, its language is too often flatly obvious. It lacks poetry. Why can’t all our plays be in blank verse? was my thought when watching King Charles III. This is how a play should be. It should speak of the concerns of our times in its own language, not always in the language of our times. Blank verse captures the moment; it echoes the deliberation of thought. It has grace and understanding, or at least it does in the right hands. It makes dull royals the stuff of good argument, and invests them with meaningful character. It makes us think we live in interesting times.
I don’t know if King Charles III will become a classic. It is so much of the moment in some of its references that any subsequent production would probably need a re-write to ensure reality had not overtaken it. A highly accomplished, largely lookalike cast such as the Almeida has assembled, might never been assembled again: Tim Pigott-Smith (Charles), Oliver Chris (William), Richard Goulding (Harry), Lydia Wilson (Kate), Margot Leicester (Camilla). In other hands, and at other times, it may not be the same play at all. It has been a privilege to see it, when its time was right.
- The playscript of King Charles III is published by NHB Books – there are some small differences from the script as performed at the Almeida