★★★ Not without ambition
Festival Theatre: Mon 16 – Sat 21 November 2015
Review by Hugh Simpson
There is an uneven grandeur to King Charles III at the Festival Theatre, which is certainly one of the most peculiar big-budget, ex-West End touring productions to hit Edinburgh recently.
Mike Bartlett’s attempt at a Shakespearean tragedy is set in unspecified time in the near future when Charles has become king. His first act as monarch is to refuse Royal Assent to a bill restricting press freedom, leading to a constitutional impasse, unrest and much backstabbing.
Despite Charles’s predilection for writing green-ink letters from Disgusted of Clarence House to government departments, it strains credulity that he should try such a thing. Furthermore, the supposed undisputed primacy of the printed press is not the only thing that dates a plot seemingly set a few years in the past rather than the future.
Such implausibilities are small beer compared to the main obstacle to comprehension ‒ that the play is performed almost entirely in blank verse, complete with faux archaisms. Bartlett does not shy away from the obvious comparisons that are bound to occur, with soliloquies and scene-ending rhyming couplets. Echoes of the great tragedies and histories abound, from plot and characterisation all the way to direct quotation.
Even to try such a scheme is astonishingly brave (or foolhardy) but it often succeeds. However, there are two main problems.
The first is that the verse is not always deftly handled, and extended metaphors about satnavs or kebabs come across as strained and unpoetic. As a result, not all of the cast seem entirely comfortable.
Robert Powell’s performance as Charles is extremely well controlled, almost underplayed at times, investing the part with considerable humanity. From the outset there are explicit references to him being an aged Hamlet, and it is to Powell’s credit that he carries this off.
Ben Righton’s William also manages to navigate the iambic pentameter, while Tim Treloar makes Mr Evans, the Labour Prime Minister caught up in the constitutional shenanigans, a three-dimensional character, not least because he is obviously a gifted verse speaker.
He also manages to give a perspective from outside the Royal family. This is sorely needed, as the character intended to provide it, Prince Harry’s commoner love interest Jess (Lucy Phelps) is thoroughly unconvincingly written. Harry himself is a one-note, broadly comic performance by Richard Glaves, while Giles Taylor’s Leader of the Opposition Mr Stevens is a stereotypically conniving politician and a wally to boot.
Jennifer Bryden’s Kate has a real presence but struggles with the more overtly Lady Macbethish facets the character is given. Smaller roles are equally inconsistent ‒ Dominic Jephcott’s press secretary is a triumph, but others are much less at home. While there is some humour in the script, the laughs do not perhaps always come when intended.
The second problem is that the subject matter creaks audibly under the weight of the structure placed on it. Shakespeare’s plays about monarchs deal with high stakes because they are concerned with genuine political and military power, not a quasi-constitutional sideshow. That Charles is reduced to ferreting about in Walter Bagehot to find precedents shows how recherché it all is.
Apart from Powell’s sympathetic, if deluded, figurehead, it is impossible to get too het up about any of them, while the Shakespeareanisms also just add to the strangeness of it.
The appearance of a ghost is entirely out of place in the modern setting, sending the whole thing into the realms of the Gothic. It is also handled so badly that it is laughable, which makes the characters in question setting such store on its pronouncements extremely peculiar.
There is also an overriding quaintness. Convoluted constitutional quibbles have no relevance to politics as it impacts on people’s lives, while the London-centric, outdated view of a two-party system seems to come from the last century.
This is only reinforced by throwaway allusions to other countries, soon forgotten about as the dialogue gets bogged down in ‘our English laws’.
That the production is not fatally compromised by a feeling of folie de grandeur can be put down partly to Bartlett’s sheer brass neck in sustaining the verse successfully for so long, but more so to the staging, which is often superb.
The direction (credited to Rupert Goold with Whitney Mosery) provides an object lesson in handling a large cast on a huge stage. Static tableaux have a real impact, but there is also an enviable fluidity to many of the scenes.
Tom Scutt’s imposing set features a lush carpeted dais inside a tower that evokes a dungeon more than a palace. This ambiguity is carried through in Jocelyn Pook’s perfectly judged music, that hovers cleverly between ceremonial archness and minimalism.
So much of the almost lunatic ambition can only be applauded, but the end result is a definite curate’s egg. It is probably of most interest to confirmed royalists. The play may show them acting like buffoons and Machiavellis, but the deference given to the institution by the plot credits the whole shebang with an extreme (and some may say undue) importance.
Running time 2 hours 45 mins including 1 interval
Festival Theatre, 13/29 Nicolson Street EH8 9FT
Monday 16 – Saturday 21 November 2015
Evenings at 7:30pm, Matinees Thurs and Sat at 2.30 pm
Tickets at http://www.edtheatres.com/kingcharlesiii
Tour dates http://kingcharles3play.co.uk/tour-dates/
King Charles III on tour:
16 – 21 Nov 2015
0131 529 6000
23 – 28 Nov 2015
30 Nov – 05 Dec 2015
7- 12 Dec 2015
26 – 30 Jan 2016
01162 423 595
1 – 6 Feb 2016
0114 249 6000
8 – 13 Feb 2016
0844 871 7650
22 – 27 Feb 2016
29 Feb – 5 Mar 2016
7 – 12 Mar 2016
0844 871 3018
14 – 19 Mar 2016
01603 63 00 00