“I ask no less than power to achieve my will in fair exchange for total service to the state.”
Uneasy lies the head that waits for the crown. Mike Barlett’s King Charles III was a deserved award-winning success when it took the Almeida by storm in 2014, transferring into the West End and then Broadway, later touring the UK and Australia too. Its success lay in the conception of a Shakespearean future history play, written in verse but set in a world recognisably our own, where Prince George is nonchalanting eating croissants, Queen Elizabeth II has just passed and before he has even been crowned, Charles finds himself in a constitutional crisis of his own making. A bold but welcome move from the BBC to commission a version then.
Directed as it was onstage by Rupert Goold and adapted by Bartlett (the narrative has been telescoped down by over an hour), it re-emerges as a powerful, pacy drama, a fascinating look into how the relationship between monarchy and government could so easily shift at a time of transition, anchored by an achingly nuanced performance from Tim Pigott-Smith in the title role. The ache is of course deepened by the actor’s death last month but that sadness shouldn’t overshadow the quality of his work here, masterful in his command of the verse, mesmerising as a man trapped by history.
Trimming the play down was clearly a necessity but you can’t help but wish it had stretched out just a little longer than the 90 minutes. The slow burn of the opening third or so is deliberately set to allow the cycling up to intense political thriller territory, but it does mean that the final third ends up feeling a little hurried, the dramatic resolution perhaps a little too easy here. But the journey is fantastic, the co-opting of Shakespearean convention with contemporary reference points (press freedom, the NHS, a junior prince involved in a mixed-race relationship – Bartlett impressively predicting the future there) perfectly encapsulates the contradictions of this Charles and Pigott-Smith mines the role for all its humane tragedy, aided by the Latinate choral beauty of Jocelyn Pook’s compositions.
Goold also managed to tempt back a large number of the original leading cast for this adaptation. Adam James’ all-too-unlikeable PM, Margot Leicester’s under-used Camilla, Oliver Chris’ uncanny William and Richard Goulding’s “ginger joke” of a Harry all impressing once more. I’d have to check the playtext but I think Harry suffered a little in the edit, though I was most pleased to see Tamara Lawrance as his ‘commoner’ intended, an actress doing vivid work onstage at the moment in Twelfth Night and making the absolute most by shining in her limited screen time here.
But even if even the marvellous Katie Brayben could return to reprise her passing appearances as the ghost of the sainted Diana, and I’d forgotten just how delicious her scenes were, I wonder why Lydia Wilson wasn’t onboard to give her Kate once more. No slight on Charlotte Riley who was very good as the most forcefully ambitious of the younger generation, the allusions to Lady Macbeth an easy one but nonetheless compelling. So a much-welcomed opportunity to revisit this most excellent of plays and hopefully an introduction to the power of theatre for those new to this world.