“Like I saw on television when
I was a younger man, I’m Charles no more
The human being, but transformed into
A Spitting Image puppet”
Fans of Mike Bartlett, and quite frankly if you like theatre then you ought to be one, will be used to the way in which his writing swings from the epic to the intimate, from sprawling ‘big issue’ plays like Earthquakes in London and 13 to the charged intensity of Contractions, Cock and Bull with crackers like Love Love Love inbetween. So it is good news indeed that he is delivering from the both ends of the pendulum this month – Paines Plough have two-hander An Intervention up at the Watford Palace about to open next week and Rupert Goold’s Almeida has the ambitious and adventurous King Charles III.
And it is no exaggeration to use those words. King Charles III takes the form of a future history play, using Shakespearean language and conventions to tell a story of a constitutional crisis that take place in the aftermath of the death of Queen Elizabeth II. It shouldn’t work, and it shouldn’t work this well, but it really does, with an extraordinary confidence of vision. The great unwashed become “the man who travels day by day upon the Clapham omnibus”, x-rated text messages are described as “a token of my love”, the ceremonial role of the Royals thus “a monarchy reduced to smiling dolls, like waitresses in diners themed” – the use of language is a constant delight.
The melding of the current royal family and the archetypes of Jacobean drama is also surprisingly, and often amusingly, effective. The wayward young’un (Richard Goulding’s Harry, the only one not to speak in verse), the older woman largely relegated to the sidelines (Margot Leicester’s brilliant Camilla, full of sense and a dry wit), the ambitious interloper (Lydia Wilson’s clear-sighted Kate a real powerhouse) and you-know-who as a portentous ghost trying to pull the strings even from the other side (Katie Brayben inclining the head just so, and pressing the right buttons to manipulate the men from her life).
And at the heart of it all lies a complex father and son relationship further complicated by the differing burdens of the crown. Tim Pigott-Smith’s pitch-perfect Charles near atrophied by a lifetime of waiting amidst the rituals of state and consequently unwilling to be just a figurehead “like Findus ready meals for one, pre-wrapped and frozen”, his refusal to kowtow to the wishes of Parliament kicking off the aforementioned constitutional crisis. And Oliver Chris’ uncanny William an altogether more modern royal, able to read the mood of the nation better, with the sage advice of his wife firmly guiding him.
We might be getting used to Rupert Goold’s quality direction but it is something that shouldn’t ever be taken for granted. Stripping the Almeida back to bare walls – Tom Scutt’s design limited to a gorgeous stone-painted mural curving round the wall and a velvet-covered dais dominating the stage – allows for the effective playing of the rituals of state (a stunning choral opening for the funeral of EII), of Parliament (Adam James and Nicholas Rowe both strong as opposing party leaders) and even of the general public (the ubiquitous Boujis gets a mention but a canny scene of kebab-shop philosophy was one of my favourite moments).
But he also roots these characters in a sense of authenticity that is highly engaging. For all Charles’ stuffiness, Pigott-Smith revels in showing him to be a sensitive father too; Camilla is always on hand to remind him of his better qualities – “remember when in Somerset the levels sank beneath the waters of the flood , you were the first to wade into the problem” – (full marks for contemporary references and in arcane language too); and we’re never allowed to forget the over-riding sense of duty that dominates this family, for all their efforts to modernise. Thrillingly exciting stuff.