Emma Groome gives us her thoughts on this controversial West End hit
Mike Bartlett’s speculative play begins on the brink of a constitutional crisis: our dear Elizabeth II is dead, and the throne is seemingly in wait of Charles (currently played by Miles Richardson). It is made clear that England is left in a state of uncertainty and instability, in need of a guiding force. Yet even before the coronation, the monarch and Prime Minister (Adam James) are found locking horns as Charles obstructs the passing of the bill regulating the freedom of press. It is this head-on clash that is the driving force of the play, as we see Charles struggle to assert the ‘meaning’ of being King against the government’s evident wish for him to perform as a mere Royal puppet, much (as is implied) like his mother did.
I found the premise’s outlandish and provocative nature an exciting insight into something the nation will eventually face
If critics have questioned the play’s premise, it would have been solely on its plausibility, as although the Prince of Wales has been notorious for writing to ministers and carefully inspecting legislation, his obstruction of the government in the play is somewhat naive as well as unconvincing. In spite of this, I found the premise’s outlandish and provocative nature an exciting insight into something the nation will eventually face, and that it evoked a certain what-if fascination as the play spiralled into civil unrest.
With the majority written in blank verse, the pastiche of Shakespeare is clever, though easily recognisable and injects much of the humour into the play. It is of course reminiscent of Shakespeare’s history plays. However, there are also allusions to both Macbeth, primarily in Lydia Wilson’s power-hungry portrayal of Kate, the driving force behind William’s (Oliver Chris) increasing interest in the throne, and poignantly towards the play’s end, King Lear.
The action acquires unstoppable momentum, at the head of which is Miles Richardson’s outstanding performance, a man over eager to make his mark, who has spent all too long worrying and waiting to ascend to power. His Charles descends from pomp and idealism, to a tragic and broken man, outraged and distraught as his family outmanoeuvre him, and realising the hollowness of the throne. Lydia Wilson also stood out, portraying Kate as much more than the pretty face that the media depict her to be, instead creating a fierce and intelligent woman, who becomes more fundamental to the unfolding plot than initially meets the eye
It is a shame that other cast members do not quite manage to eschew their Royal stereotypes in the same way as Richardson, though this may be fault of the writing as opposed to the performance given. I found Prince Harry’s (Richard Goulding) subplot, in which he falls for Republican art student Jess (Tafline Steen), somewhat irritating, as it presents Harry in his Las Vegas glory days, presenting him as nothing more than a shallow, angsty and foppish youth, primarily playing off the obvious jokes of his drinking habits and ginger hair. Though Goulding’s delivery is good, he is let down by his two dimensional character. Steen’s portrayal of the mouthy Republican art student is also disappointingly contrived, and at some points leaves the audience feeling awkward at her belligerent contrarianism.
The set is unchanging, with the majority of the action taking place on a royally red dais. However I particularly liked the frieze running along the back of the brick wall, a copy of a Medieval fresco found in Westminster Abbey, depicting hundreds of sombre and anxious looking faces, perhaps intending to symbolise those of the increasingly anxious public. Director Rupert Goold’s decision to have Charles address these faces throughout certainly made it seem so. The set’s sense of history and antiquity was mirrored in Jocelyn Pook’s music, with a haunting candlelit chorus of Agnus Dei right through to the very last line. At some points I found the play reminiscent of a BBC primetime drama, but it is this clever twist that captivated the audience from the very start.
It was a dynamic and thought-provoking production, and Rupert Goold’s excellent direction ensured the ultimate success of Bartlett’s writing. It begged the question of whether something as ancient as the monarchy can really be fit for purpose in our rapidly accelerating modern world, and stands as one of the most stimulating and compelling pieces of theatre to grace the West End this year.
And here is a gif of Prince Charles having a great time at the theatre …
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