King Charles III, Bath Theatre Royal and touring

playsKing Charles III - Robert Powell as King Charles - 2015 UK Tour - Photo credit Richard Hubert Smith (2)MIKE Bartlett’s play King Charles III is half-way through a 20-venue UK tour, and filling Bath’s Theatre Royal until Saturday 28th November.

The prolific 35-year-old playwright who brought the climate change play Earthquakes in London to the National Theatre, was commissioned by Rupert Goold to write this 2014 play, which sold out at the Almeida and did the same in the West End before the tour and the simultaneous New York transfer.

It all starts as Prince Charles, after years and years of waiting in the wings, attends his mother’s funeral, regally framed with the company bearing candles and singing a requiem – a nice nod to the heir’s friendship with choral conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner.

Steeped and mired in tradition and expectation, the new king uses the vacuum between his accession and his coronation to make his mark. Among those who suffered most at the hands of a voracious scandal-digging press, he stands up against a republican (and Welsh) prime minister to defeat a bill to limit the freedom of that Press, invoking his right not just to sign the Royal Assent, but to dissolve Parliament.

But while Charles has been waiting, time has moved on and in the “post Diana” days, the touchy-feely public has fallen deeply in love with the young princes and their squeezes, and wants either a leapfrog-monarchy or no monarchy at all. Charles’s deeply-felt and highly principled gesture is consigned to irrelevance.

To describe this black comedy, written in verse with more Shakespearean references than you could shake an orb at, as multi-layered would be to undersell it. It’s more like travelling through a painting by Martin Escher, never quite knowing where you are or where you’ll be next.

See it as anti-monarchist, anti-press, anti-politics, pro-tradition, republican or just plain modern, it’s a play that deals with a group of real living people who we all feel we know, yet do not. It could not have been staged  until recently, and perhaps there is a question of how quickly it will date … so see it now is the answer.

With touches of magic realism with the arrival of the ghost of Saint Diana and her mixed messages, a strong whiff of the Scottish Queen, two-party politics in their current playground setting, and the chilling evidence of the rise of the Windsor Brand, this is a compelling story that at its heart has a tortured man who hasn’t so much lost touch as never HAD touch with the people.

Both writer and director wanted an actor with the gravitas to play a Shakespearean king, and on this tour have it in Robert Powell, whose small stature increases his powerful vulnerability.

Whether we like the oafish ginger lad, the self-satisfied PM, the tricky Tory leader, the scheming Kate or the earnestly arrogant Will, all are played both as recognisable characters but without recourse to vocal twitches or caricature.

Camilla in this production provides the one problem, dressed in Hamp­stead Bazaar one-size-fits-all academic elegance rather than the familiar cut of the Duchess’s jib, and played without her signature humour and elan, you keep wondering who this person is. But it’s the only jarring note in a brilliantly predicted observation of what just might happen.

You have to wonder if The Firm has seen the play, and, if so, what they possibly could have thought.

Day tickets are still available for the Bath run.


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