“Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be … WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE!” That seems to be pretty much the spirit in which Mike Bartlett has approached his latest play. King Charles III is a speculative drama, a “future history play,” that imagines the fate of the British monarchy following Charles’s sucession to the throne and that - intriguingly - utilises some of the conventions and tropes of Shakespeare’s History Plays (plus mashed up bits of Hamlet, Macbeth and others) to do so. Tapping with steely calculation into the obsessions of our weirdly monarchy-friendly moment, the play has - predictably enough - already won much press acclaim as a searing piece of provocation. But, despite moments of engaging cheek, and a typically slick staging by Rupert Goold, I’d argue that it’s a pretty toothless piece of work underneath.
Opening in fine, striking fashion with the funeral of Queen Bess II, the play quickly cooks up a contrived crisis when Charles’s refusal to sign a bill restricting press freedom puts him at odds with the Labour government. With the new monarch refusing to play ball as his Ma might have done, a full-scale political ruckus looks likely. Camilla (Margot Leicester) cajoles; Wills (Oliver Chris) and Kate (Lydia Wilson) scheme and intervene. And Harry (Richard Goulding) occupies himself by hooking up with a sparky republican student Jess (Tafline Steen), a character who appears to have wandered straight in from Bartlett’s much-admired 2010 play Earthquakes in London. Meanwhile, the ghost of the erstwhile “Queen of Hearts” walks (yes, really), dispensing cryptic messages to her sons and her ex in the wee small hours.
That all of this comes off as a good deal less ludicrous than it sounds in synopsis is due to the confidence of Goold’s production which - evidently aware of the arch-gimmickry of Bartlett’s conceit - refrains from dashing at the play with habitual Headlong gimmicks. Rather, the approach is quite stately and restrained with a spare design by Tom Scutt and magnificent choral music from Jocelyn Pook (a score for a classier play, really) punctuating the scenes.
Then, of course, there’s also the sheer oddity of hearing versions of our current Royals popping out mock-Shakespearen dialogue, with inverted phrases, blank verse, similes, soliloquies and asides supplementing the usual crowd-pleasing Bartlett-ese (“Fucking hell, weirdest day evah” mutters Jess after being introduced to Wills and Kate.) Though some of the state-of-the-nation musings sound contrived in the extreme, the play’s linguistic mix at least gives King Charles III more stylistic interest, theatricality and novelty than the colourless writing which we’ve come to expect in work by Peter Morgan and other “docudrama” purveyors.
It’s a novelty that palls, though, since the political dimension of the piece feels puny and undercooked, and may leave some of us wishing for a more challenging, critical perspective on the House of Windsor. In place of this, Bartlett takes a rather affectionate attitude to the royals throughout, one that avoids any barbed satire. A queasily sycophantic programme essay by Tim Stanley that deems the monarchy to be “Britain’s spine of steel” sets the tone for right Royal rump-kissing, and I, for one, would like the piece a whole lot better if it didn’t pander so obviously to our culture’s current Royalist biases. For, like Morgan’s work, King Charles III perpetuates a view of the Windsors as a bunch of bumbling yet likeable closet liberals who stack up very well when compared to our nasty, scheming politicians. This sentimental stance is turning into a modern myth, and those of us who find it offensive won’t be mollified by Bartlett’s approach here and the presentation of Charles as a staunch defender of press freedom.
With characterisation swerving uneasily between Shakespearean archetype and media-created caricature - Richard Goulding’s Harry comes off as Prince Hal via Fresh Meat’s posh boy JP - there’s only so far the actors can go in their roles. But Tim Pigott-Smith (last seen at the Almeida in James MacDonald’s wonderful production of Albee’s A Delicate Balance) manages to give a very fine performance as Charles, eschewing impersonation for a lucid exploration of the character’s position. Still, for all the production’s witty touches, it’s essentially pastiche that Bartlett’s up to here. And if you don’t feel that’s quite enough for a compelling drama, then King Charles III may strike you, ultimately, as a rather superficial exercise: a hollow crown, indeed.
The production is booking until 31st May. Further information at the Almeida website.