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 The Theatreguide.London Review

King Charles III
Almeida Theatre  Spring 2014; Wyndham's Theatre Autumn-Winter 2014-2015

Mike Bartlett's new play may be unsure from moment to moment whether it is political satire, character drama, dystopian prediction, Shakespearean tragedy or farce, but it is remarkably successful at each of these. You may find your responses changing with each new scene, but you will never be bored. 

Opening soon after the death of Elizabeth II, the play finds King Charles, not yet officially crowned, instigating a constitutional crisis by refusing the usually pro forma Royal Assent to a new law he finds unacceptable. 

In retaliation Parliament threatens to remove what few powers the monarch still has, Charles dissolves Parliament, the people take sides and a decorous British civil war looms. 

Meanwhile the Prime Minister is outraged, the Leader of the Opposition sees an opportunity to manipulate matters to the benefit of his party, William and Kate fear they may never get their turn at monarchy, Harry decides to chuck this whole royal business and get a job, and Diana's ghost walks. 

The satiric picture of political posturing and manipulation is all too believable, the Harry and William subplots are frequently very funny and the portrait of Charles as a man of principle is sympathetic. 

But as the battle lines are drawn and Charles is pushed into an uncharacteristic hardness and even megalomania, and as William is forced to choose between loyalty to father and preservation of the monarchy (a choice not untainted by ambition), the play does reach toward true tragedy. 

That last strand is enhanced by the fact that the play is written in Shakespearean verse, right down to the soliloquies, extended similes and scene-ending couplets, and with unforced allusions to Macbeth, Henry IV and Richard III. 

Given such a mix of purposes and styles, it is a real tribute to the playwright, director Rupert Goold and the cast that the play doesn't spin off in different directions or collapse into a mess, but actually holds your attention and entertains throughout. 

Without ever lapsing into imitation or parody, Tim Pigott-Smith captures the essence of the Charles we know, a good man with strong beliefs and the habit of expressing them quietly and politely, and then takes him on the journey into hardened determination and something approaching madness. 

Oliver Chris's William, Richard Goulding's Harry and Margot Leicester's Camilla may be closer to Spitting Image parody, though Lydia Wilson's Kate is enriched by a refreshing touch of Lady Macbeth. 

Adam James, Nicholas Rowe and Nick Sampson ably convey the urbane oiliness shared by politicians and career civil servants, and Tafline Steen finds some reality in the underwritten role of the club girl Harry falls for.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - King Charles III - Almeida Theatre 2014
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