BWW Reviews: KING CHARLES III, Almeida Theatre, April 10 2014
It's hard to get a grip on the Constitution of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland - Brits may have written plenty of constitutions around the world, but they didn't write one for themselves. But it's been widely acknowledged since Walter Bagehot coined the terms nearly 150 years ago, that our constitution has two dimensions: The Dignified (pomp, circumstance and lots of fancy dress); and The Efficient (laws, courts and er... still quite a bit of fancy dress). On the death of Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles becomes King Charles and hops from a comfortable niche on The Dignified side of matters governmental to a bed of nails on its Efficient side.
Such is the premise of Mike Bartlett's future history play, King Charles III (continuing at the Almeida Theatre until 31 May 2014) and it's a bloody good one. It's also the last good idea of an extraordinary production that I suspect will delight and dismay audiences.
Tim Pigott-Smith is the man who would be more than King, all edgy public persona and thoughtful private man, agonising over his dilemma about what to do with the power finally in his grasp. He refuses Royal Assent to a bill passed by both Houses of Parliament and soon stubbornly resists entreaties to do the right thing, old boy. His jousts with a Milibandish PM (Adam James, clever, impatient, exasperated) and Nicholas Rowe's oily, opportunistic, hypocritical Leader of the Opposition, have a touch of the Yes, Ministers about them - if, like everything else, they're about as plausible as Nigel Farage's shtick as a Man of the People.
As the political crisis morphs into civil unrest, the play concentrates more on the relationship of Charles to his two sons, an eerily lookalike, soundalike, standalike Oliver Chris as a relaxed William and Richard Goulding's laddish Harry. It is the princes who must save their country and, with a little help from streetsmart Kate, a plan is hatched. Lydia Wilson's Duchess of Cambridge is the Kate so many of us hope for. She has the beauty, cunning and ambition of Sian Phillips' unforgettable Livia in I, Claudius, but a 21st century sensibility to match her sensible deployment of such gifts as she effortlessly manipulates vain men.
Sounds like Shakespeare? Yes, it does... And I mean that it really does sound like Shakespeare. Mike Bartlett insists on his characters' speech floating into blank verse, a blank verse in which the English acquires German grammar, with verb to the end sent. This had the same effect on my ear as missing a step on a flight of stairs has on my foot. It also promoted an irresistible expectation that everyone would push on and deliver the whole lot in rhyming couplets - like Rupert the Bear. And just when the iambic pentameter stops butting in and you can concentrate on what they're saying instead of how they're saying it, someone takes a timeout to talk to the audience directly - possibly evoking Hamlet, but more suggestive of Aladdin.
It's not just Shakey who gets a nod either, the relationship between Harry (29 now, never mind in the future, but portrayed as the troubled tabloid teen of a decade of so ago) and art student Jess (Dr Martens, black clothes, "Whatever...") seems to rerun Jarvis Cocker's Common People, even name-checking St Martin's (which has been Central St Martin's for a quarter of a century). Tafline Steen's Jess is sorely underused, her best scene a lovely little bonding session with Kate that promises much, but leads nowhere.
Diana turns up as a ghost, still peeking out through that fringe, and, more interestingly, she's also there in a steely look of her eldest son, something recognised by the cantankerous crowds and by a crumbling King. Camilla (Margot Leicester) shuffles in and out too, a fiercely loyal, insensitive consort, with no ear for the mood of a country nor a room - at least she's not smoking though.
The play has plenty of serious points to make about what The Crown can do to and for its subjects and what The Crown can do to and for its pretenders. There's something too of the pathos that emerged from the cruel treatment of Princess Margaret over her love for Group Captain Peter Townsend, a hideous episode now long swept under the royal carpet. But the tricks keep getting in the way of the tale - as in the case of its eponymous hero, a little less ambition may have been advisable.