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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Wyndham's


  Oliver Chris and Tim Pigott-Smith/ Ph: Johan Persson

The title King Charles has always been accompanied by controversy in English history – the first beheaded, the second thought to be too close to Catholics and his spaniels. If Britain were to have a third, what might the consequences be? Prince Charles is already renowned for his attempts to involve himself in government affairs on matters ranging from the environment to Northern Ireland. Mike Bartlett’s brilliant play now asks how far he might be prepared to push the political neutrality of the monarchy – guarded with such care and dignity by his mother – should he one day ascend the throne?
It is a mark of this production’s cleverness that it takes ingredients for comedy – imitations of royals, an anarchic ghost, a profligate prince and the yah-boo antics of his hooray mates – and turns them into a subtle meditation on power. The evening – presided over by director Rupert Goold – opens with a haunting minimalist requiem for Queen Elizabeth II, performed by a candlelit cast. From the start, the Shakespearean tilt of Bartlett’s script is underscored by dialogue partly written in blank verse. Its knife-sharp modernity comes in the metaphor – King Charles laments that his people want his opinions "All good to go, like Findus meals for one." Later, one of Prince Harry’s friends is teased that he looks as if he’s been "raped by Primark."
Initially Barlett’s choice of constitutional crisis seems somewhat curious – since it comes when the new king decides he wants to block a bill that will curtail the freedom of the press. As the play unfolds, however, Barlett’s decision is revealed as a clever psychological manoeuvre. Since most people attending this play will believe in press freedom, the issue is shifted from whether or not they agree with Charles’ principles (they will), to whether they think he should be allowed to extend his role. This therefore becomes a question about power in its purest form – a struggle between realism and idealism that lies at the heart of which conditions should be adhered to for us to preserve the monarchy.
A fantastic cast ensures that we never feel we are watching an exalted "spitting image." Instead we become fascinated by the interplay of the Machiavellianism-lite of Lydia Wilson’s Kate Middleton, the multi-faced hypocrisy of Nicholas Rowe’s Leader of the Opposition, and Prince Harry’s sex-fuelled yearning for normality. There are many lovely touches in Bartlett’s never less than full-blooded imagining of the situation. Prince Charles’ typical two-mindedness is evoked in his decision to see the Leader of the Opposition as well as the Prime Minister every week. And just before the interval, a gently pragmatic question is raised about the transfer of power when Prince Harry hands a Queen Elizabeth II five-pound note to a kebab seller and gets the response, "Out of date, innit."
Yet the jewel in this delightfully tarnished crown is Charles himself as embodied by Tim Piggott-Smith. Unlike the unsympathetically out-of-touch individual often portrayed by the press, he comes across as an Everyman, troubled by the same issues of morality that would disturb most people, and profoundly aware of his own flaws. Against Tom Scutt’s wonderfully simple design – a brick wall with a frieze that can be lit to reveal the silent yet powerful crowd that constitutes Charles’ subjects – he becomes a man torn between conscience, duty and love of his family. It says much for Bartlett’s vision that you leave the theatre not condemning the monarchy, but proud to live in a country where it can be both challenged like this and celebrated without compromising our democratic independence. 


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