Charles III was a very different play to the one I was expecting to see. I had read the (glowing) reviews and seen the promo pictures of the characters in Spitting Image masks and assumed it was a farce with a biting satirical edge. There was even a time that I thought it was a musical.
Maybe the real life Prince Charles was partly to blame for my pre-show assumptions,after all if any member of the royal family is rich for satire and mockery it’s our heir to the throne with his bah-humbug attitude to modern architecture (modern anything?) and his infamous convos with plants. But Mike Bartlett’s penned Charles III is far better than a rollicking farce – although it is often crying-with-laughter funny – it’s played with a seriousness and realism that surprised and impressed me.
Jocelyn Pooks rousing, majestic music accompanies the dramatic opening scene as the royals and assorted big wigs assemble for Elizabeth II’s funeral, setting the tone for a play that is compelling, emotional and thrilling. His mum still barely cold, Charles, even before he’s officially got that longed for crown on his head, is kicking up a fuss about the seen-and-not-heard nature of his role as head of state. Things go from awkward to very messy in a few days and by the second half it’s gone a bit V for Vendetta.
Everything about this new play by Barnett is brilliantly realised, from the instantly recognisable royals who grow out of their media-given straight jackets as the play develops, to the scenario of a tank in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. None of it seemed ludicrous even when we were laughing at what seemed absurd (I admit to laughing at the tank bit with some trepidation; would I look back at this moment when there was an actual tank sitting on the foreground of Buckingham Palace and wonder what was so funny?).
I loved, loved, loved Richard Goulding’s Prince Harry who grew from the tabloid fool we know (and in many cases, love) him for today, to a sensible duty-first second son, sprouting heartfelt blank verse like his name sake Prince Hal after he’s dumped Falstaff and is trying to get into his dad’s good books. And talking of Shakespeare, his influence is all over this, from Hamlet to Richard II and, in my mind most of all, King Lear, his poetry and supernatural plot lines haunt Rupert Goold’s production. Perhaps Shakespeare is most apparent when the political turns personal, because like all stories about princes, it’s the torment of the man versus the royal figure that ultimately leads to their downfall.
Tim Piggott-Smith is brilliant at playing parts where he’s both sympathetic and enormously frustrating, a skill he’s once again called on as Charles III. He’s fantastic as a man who is led by principle to the detriment of all else. He’s confused, bordering on the brink of madness, unable to comprehend the world around him like a better dress Lear. His face as he realises he’ll never be the king he’d hope to be is heartbreaking.
Lydia Wilson gives Kate Middleton a voice for the first time and what a voice; in Mike Bartlett’s play the future queen is a steely intelligent tour de force behind that glossy hair. I thought her character was brilliantly brought to life and completely believable. I hope the real Kate has half as much drive and intelligence as Wilson’s. Oliver Chris’ William was at first a Tim-nice-but-dim who soon stepped up to do his duty, politely of course, again squeeze your eyes half shut and he could have been Wills (with rather more hair).
Charles III is the kind of play we need right now, clever, witty, full of spark, critical without being sarky. Its triumphant run at the Almeida Theatre ends in two days, but I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this play.
Charles III finishes at the Almeida Theatre on Saturday 31 May, but returns to the Wyndhams Theatre in the West End briefly in September. For more information visit http://www.almeida.co.uk/event/kingcharleswe.
by Suzanne Elliott