Well may we say 'God save the king': Almeida’s King Charles III

Hailed as a “modern masterpiece,” and “one of the great (political) plays of our time,” Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III arrives in Sydney following a UK tour, and acclaimed sell-out seasons in London, the West End, and Broadway. Produced by Almeida Theatre, the play is a “future history play” written in blank verse in the style and structure of one of Shakespeare’s history plays, and charts potential events following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. And while Bartlett’s play is full of interesting ideas and situations, and is elegantly realised, it ultimately fails to live up to the very high bar raised by its incessant word-of-mouth machine currently running in overdrive on the back of buses, taxis, bus shelters, and magazines across the city.

Taking a very simple conceit – the near-future death of Queen Elizabeth II, and the accession of Charles – and exploring it to its fullest and, perhaps, natural conclusion, Bartlett has created a rare thing – a play which stands on its own as a new play, yet dovetails neatly and, it seems, effortlessly with the Shakespearean mode of history plays about monarchs, power, ambition, and downfall. Written in blank verse, King Charles III’s “form and content [are] inextricably linked,” and work to great effect. Rather than feeling like a gimmick, it feels entirely natural to the story’s telling, and at times perfectly within the nature of these characters to speak as they do. Spanning “five acts [and] a comic subplot,” we see princes and consorts, ministers, secretaries, and politicians; commoners, ghosts, and rebels, and even though its scope is positively Shakespearean, its reality is very much our own, and it seems to speak from 400 years ago as well as from the near future and the present in a single moment.
King by default upon the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Charles’ first duty is to sign off on a new bill to restrict the freedom of the press, a bill which has the support of both houses of parliament, and both sides of politics, almost unanimously it seems. However, Charles refuses to do so, and refuses to back down from his stance. Parliament bickers amongst itself until Charles dissolves it, and chaos ensues. Suddenly in the spotlight in a rather unpleasant way, Charles must reconcile public opinion and his own ideas of kingliness if he wants to continue as monarch.
This production, an identical copy of the original production on London and Broadway, is directed with clarity, economy, precision by Rupert Goold and Whitney Mosery. Action moves swiftly, and the cast often double as extras in the background of scenes, making the play’s scale feel larger than it is. The Roslyn Packer theatre’s large stage is filled by Tom Scutt’s ancient brick set, full of Norman-era columns and doorways, the physical evocation of the monarchy’s centuries-old foundations and Britain’s fading power. Jocelyn Pook’s compositions straddle centuries and musical styles, echoing minimalist composers like Philip Glass, and older latin texts and classical musical styles with great effect and urgency. Jon Clark’s lighting is clear and precise, and both fills the space, and makes it feel more intimate as required, while Paul Arditti’s sound design helps us change location with simple soundscapes; the opening Requiem sequence, the dissolution scene immediately before interval and the protest scene immediately after, as well as the play’s conclusion are all highpoints of the production’s design from all four disciplines.
Goold’s cast are, for the most part, strong, and bring a sense of weight and tradition to Bartlett’s ‘future history play.’ Featuring the UK touring cast and rather than the original London/Broadway cast, the stand-outs here are Kate (Jennifer Bryden) and Harry (Richard Glaves). Glaves plays Harry with charm akin to that of Shakespeare’s own famous Prince Harry or, rather Hal (from Henry IV), and I’m not so sure that it’s a coincidence in the writing on Bartlett’s part; there is a sense of freedom to his character’s beginning, a sense of bending and, perhaps, breaking rules, but as the play heads towards its conclusion and his relationship with art student Jess (Lucy Phelps; in many respects this production’s Falstaff-figure) is put under strain, his princely comes knocking, and you almost half-expect him to say “I know thee not, [young Jess]” at the play’s end. Bryden’s Kate is not the Lady Macbeth as she has been described elsewhere; while that character is ruthless and cold in her ambitious reach for power, Bryden’s Kate is pragmatic, progressive, and fearlessly intelligent, and is fully aware of the power she wields with her husband Prince William (Ben Righton) over the people of Britain, and the events she is able to bring into being. And while their joint ambition is seen by Charles as ruthless, it’s never to the detriment of the monarchy as in the Scottish play, but is instead for the strength and longevity of both the monarchy, the country, and the commonwealth. The curious link in this production, however, is Charles himself, played by Robert Powell. While it is self-defeating to compare actors in different productions based on their statures &c, here Powell does not seem to have the necessary gravitas or imposing stage presence as Tim Piggot-Smith did in the original production, and he does not quite command the stage as the character could or, perhaps, should. However, there is a kind of Charles-like ‘weakness’ to his performance which seems apt, a knowledge that he isn’t – or, perhaps, won’t be – anything like the monarch his mother was before him, no matter how hard he tries. It is this tension – between who he wants to be and who he is – that keeps his character and performance interesting, that keeps Bartlett’s play ticking along through the slower pockets of Act One’s political shenanigans.
There is a lot to like in this production, as in the play itself. Taking its Shakespeare lineage mostly seriously, Bartlett peppers his script with nods to the Bard’s characters and plots, and often misappropriates quotes to suit his needs; he also has quite a good line in puns that, while nowhere near as sexual or outrageous as Shakespeare’s, are just as clever and invisibly inserted into the fabric of the play. There are nods here to perhaps half-a-dozen plays that I can think of, from King Lear and Henry IV (both parts), to Richard III, Richard II, and Macbeth, as well as Henry VI perhaps. And although Goold’s direction is strong, the pacing lags a bit in the middle of Act One, while the politicians bicker to and fro over Charles’ inaction and refusal to sign off on the bill, while Charles decides on his next move; this all comes to a head immediately before interval in a decisive moment of kingly intervention, a kind of deus ex machina moment which theatre thrives upon. Act Two is a lot more solid, assured, and dramatically interesting, and gallops on towards its ending with the kind of machinations that Shakespeare knew and wrote about with such insight, four-hundred-odd years ago.
Upon further reflection, I’ve found myself wondering why this production was imported, why a local production was not mounted instead? Was it a case of scale and/or cast-size - simple logistics and feasibility - that prevented the endeavour, or was it something more? I’m not denying that it is a welcome addition to the theatre ecology in Sydney (and, indeed, Australia), to be able to see such strong and well-received international productions such as this and 1927’s Golem (barely a month earlier) as part of Sydney Theatre Company’s season, but I am perhaps more interested in what this play would look and sound like, how Bartlett’s themes of monarchy, power, dissolution, rebellion, groundswell movements, and near-future rewriting would resonate in an Australian production. As unthinkable as such acts might seem to the British, the Australian political scene of the last five, twenty, forty years has featured many events a little too similar to those in this play than we should be comfortable with. And even though I don’t think this production is quite up to the ‘play of the year’ standard we were led to expect, it is nonetheless a reasonably strong production, and the fact it may soon be expanded into a television treatment means it will hopefully have a long life.

I still want to see that Australian production, though.

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