THEATRE REVIEW: King Charles III, Wyndham’s Theatre

directed by Rupert Goold

running until 31 January 2015

Mike Bartlett’s “future history” play secured its West End transfer after a successful run at the Almeida earlier this year, directed by its artistic director Rupert Goold. A bold, satirical work, it uses the premise of some frankly pretty unlikely events to explore national consciousness; the conversations, expectations and confrontations of the nation’s most famous family; and – in one of the many  takes on Shakespearean themes – the interwoven, sometimes clashing faces of the public and personal.

King Charles III by Mike Bartlett
King Charles III by Mike Bartlett

Tim Pigott-Smith gives a wonderful performance as Charles, at last on the throne and aiming to make his mark, which he does by refusing to sign a bill already passed by the two Houses, throwing the country into a constitutional crisis. While the plot itself is rather implausible, it is excellently told by a strong cast and superlative direction by Goold. The combination of modern references and Bard-like conceits in Mike Bartlett’s impressive script are blended with ease in a show that neatly draws together ideas of tradition and revolution – but which will win out in the end?

Pigott-Smith’s lead performance has been called “the performance of his career” by some critics and it’s certainly a truly great portrayal: rather than simply mimicking the Prince we are all familiar with, he takes elements of the real man and the additions of Bartlett’s speculative script to create a rounded and fascinating character, depicted with an understated yet powerful core of steeliness in an increasingly fragile royal seat. He is well supported by the ensemble of royals, politicians, staff and the one outsider Jess (a breezily upfront Tafline Steen), art student and love interest to Harry. Bartlett bravely tackles a range of real and imaginary figures in sometimes surprising ways: whereas Camilla (Margot Leicester) remains a lightly sketched character, the nation’s darling Kate is given an interesting makeover, refreshingly smart but undeniably ambitious and conniving. Lydia Wilson is excellent in the part, driving forward many of the twists in the tale with a devious charm alongside Adam James as a frustrated but determined Prime Minister. Elsewhere Richard Goulding delights as Harry, playing on the assumptions that the British public – and certainly the British press – may hold about him, but displaying heaps of charisma as probably the most likeable and intriguing of the family, torn between two lives.

Casting for King Charles III at the Wyndham's Theatre
King Charles III at the Wyndham’s Theatre

Amongst the serious and provocative themes, many of which reflect familiar political and social urgencies, there is plenty of humour here and the odd dose of silliness, notably the ghostly figure of Diana who pops up now and then in an almost grotesquely funny take on the Shakespearean device – a twenty-first centruy equivalent of Banquo or King Hamlet, prophesying and scaring our modern royals half to death.

With everything from grand coronation robes and Latin chants to references to the trendiest London restaurants (a lovely moment in the dialogue recalls Harry and Jess visiting Dans Le Noir to avoid the eyes of the paparazzi and selfie-hunters), King Charles III is ambitious and pretty epic in scale, covering freedom of the press, the constitutional monarchy, social unrest, father-son relationships, family loyalty, and a good old boy-meets-girl love story. With clever direction and a uniformly talented cast, these discrete elements come together to form an unusual but highly entertaining night of theatre.

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