After winning big at this year’s Olivier Awards, the Almeida is on a royal roll with King Charles III’s appearance on its small but perfectly-formed stage. Branded a ‘future history play’, it imagines the aftermath of the not-so-distant death of Queen Elizabeth II. As Charles waits to be crowned, he becomes hungry for power and fearful of betrayal which leads to a bitter end.
Mike Bartlett is a very talented writer, who peppers blank verse throughout a play that is simultaneously serious and humorous. His writing is astoundingly rich, yet Bartlett manages to place ornate language alongside pop culture references ever so smoothly. Its performative nature is also played upon through lines such as, ‘coronation day itself is just ancient costumes worn, and lines to learn, a slice of theatre, that’s played for fun?’
And a lot of the play is, in fact, fun. Prince Harry is acted artfully by Richard Goulding, who portrays a longing to escape the perils of royal life and visit Sainsburys, eat scotch eggs and hang out with girls other than the usual ‘Sloanish fluff’. This is why the edgy (if not bedraggled) Jess saunters in, forming a relationship with Harry that brings a source of ‘gap yah’ wit into a play that could have easily been too consistently Shakespearean for a modern audience.
Each member of the royal family is treated with respect and does not merely result in a caricature. Prince William is pragmatic, Kate Middleton is clever but calculating, and the supportive, matter-of-fact Camilla rivals the ghost of Diana. Yes, Diana makes an appearance (of course). There are also generic characters such as the Prime Minister, who is named Mr Evans, and the leader of the opposition party who are both practically Charles’s nemeses.
It is, however, the marvellous Tim Pigott-Smith who holds the production together. He is so convincing as Charles that I ceased to remember him ever being any other character, on television or stage. He is excellent at depicting intense frustration and bitter sadness, and he also delivers a series of playful gags. At one point he complains about the public’s assumption that he will always have a view on a particular topic, remarking that he is like a Findus ready meal, ‘prewrapped and frozen’.
The brick walls of the Almeida form the backdrop to the stage and the set design remains simple. This lack of gimmickry propels the play’s plot and language further into the spotlight, and it advertises the brilliant subtlety of Rupert Goold’s directing. The candlelit funeral scene that opens the play is particularly impressive for this and it also showcases haunting music by Jocelyn Pook.
King Charles III will appeal to anyone that likes watching a talented cast perform an artfully crafted play with an ingenious plot line. It is intelligent, and whilst it may not initially seduce those who prefer the ‘jazz hands’ type of theatre, it is well worth seeing when it transfers to the West End this autumn. Long live King Charles III.
*Images are not my own*