Image Credits: Tim Pigott-Smith as King Charles III by Johan Persson (c) Almeida Theatre
What will Charles be like as King? We don't know for sure but many fear it. And we get a dark forewarning in King Charles III, a provocative and controversial future-history play at the Almeida Theatre.
Set in the very near future, Queen Elizabeth has died and Charles (Tim Piggott-Smith) leads the familiar mourners- William (Oliver Chris), Kate (Lydia Wilson), Harry (Richard Goulding), and Camilla (Margot Leicester) - at her funeral. But as soon as the ceremony is over, Charles is required to continue the duties of a monarch by signing into law a divisive new privacy bill that seeks to limit the freedom of the press.
Royal Assent should just be a matter of routine but Charles refuses. He believes himself to be taking a principled stand, to be defending the freedom of his subjects, but inevitably it plunges the country into constitutional crisis.
The writing from Mike Bartlett is sharp and current in content. He knows the technicalities of our constitutional monarchy well and all the worrying idiosyncrasies of our unwritten constitution are laid bare.
Yes, parts of this production are exaggerated for theatrical purpose - I'm no fan of Charles but even I think it's unlikely that within two weeks of his mother's death, Charles will have dissolved Parliament and have put tanks on The Mall - but it is necessary for the theme of the story to be made,
What will really surprise you though is the style of this play. It is a Shakespearian tragedy in tone, structure and even writing. By adopting such a style, Bartlett cleverly implies that Charles III will be another example of the tragedy of kings that Shakespeare mined so beautifully in his history plays.
In this production, Charles is a King undone by his own desire to rule, rather than reign. And in true Shakespearian style, it is the tragedy of the man that he wants so much to be King when he is clearly so patently unfit for the role.
And there's plenty of Shakespearian treachery, plotting and family betrayal. There are even ghosts, soliloquies, using the audience as confidantes and a rather surprising Lady Macbeth.
The Shakespeare nods even go down to the words with plenty of rhyming couplets and verse. You do have to adjust to William and Kate talking in phrases such as "Kate, what on that paper makes you look?" and "Tell me about this letter brought" but it's all cleverly done.
Credit is due to the whole cast for their performances. The fine line between acting and caricature is desperately hard with persons we are so familiar with. All of them were excellent.
It may be no surprise that a lot of the comedy came from Harry (a perfectly pitched performance from Goulding) but Lydia Wilson as Kate Middleton was excellent, bringing depth and ambition to a woman we see in such a passive role on our screens and in our papers. Adam James is also excellent as the robust Prime Minister quite prepared to go toe-to-toe with the King.
Obviously, Tim Piggott-Smith stands out as Charles - he is such a superb actor. He keeps the obvious affectations such as the hand-wringing and the awkward body language, but fleshes him out with a man as much ill at ease with himself as he is with others.
This production may not be completely perfect - losing 15 minutes off its long running time wouldn't be hard - but the challenge is more for the audience rather than looking to amend the show, which is an interesting turn of the tables.
For the first 30 minutes or so, there was plenty of nervous laughter in the audience, many of whom were unsure what to make of what they were watching. Certainly the haunting wanderings of Diana's spectre led to more suppressed giggles than dramatic gasps. But soon we were all enwrapped in the drama and it is a reflection of the quality on show that by the end we pitied Charles as much as we loathed him.
The style of the whole production is controversial but what a breath of fresh air. Mike Bartlett's writing is brave and Rupert Goold's direction is provocative, yes, but you have to applaud them for taking such risks.
It would have been so, so easy to tackle this subject matter through a more straightforward drama. Director Rupert Goold took a big gamble in choosing to adopt such a provocative style, knowing that it might (and probably will) divide audiences.
But if theatre is going to survive, even thrive in such a competitive world of entertainment, it needs to be brave and relevant. It needs to take risks. King Charles III is a massive, massive risk - which really plays off. I loved it - moving, relevant, controversial and superb.
Almeida Theatre, London
To May 31, 2014