(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 19 October)
Original verse dramas are thin on the ground when it comes to the 20th and 21st century. The iambic pentameter doesn’t necessarily echo contemporary speech fashions, though Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not For Burning managed it successfully. Now Mike Bartlett’s “future history” play King Charles III joins the select band.
This production by Rupert Goold is currently on a national tour en route to Broadway. It began life at London’s Almeida Theatre with a different cast and has been revised and updated during its 18-month life. The set by Tom Scutt – a semi-circle of brick walls bisected horizontally by a Byzantine-style frieze of royal forebears – might serve equally well for one of Shakespeare’s history plays. Elements of the plot reinforce this.
Bartlett postulates the accession to the British throne of the present Prince of Wales. There is an early clash with convention, as the new king (Robert Powell) insists on having weekly meetings not just with his dour Welsh Prime Minister Evans (Tim Treloar) but with the infinitely more pliable Leader of the Opposition Stevens (Giles Taylor).
Meanwhile his younger son Harry (Richard Glaves) is churning up the local clubs and bars, in the course of which he meets Jess (Lucy Phelps). His heir William (Ben Righton) is concerned for the future of the monarchy and comes over as increasingly dominated by his wife Kate (Jennifer Bryden), who has more than a slight whiff of Lady Macbeth in her attitude to her husband.
A key factor in Goold’s production is the vocal score by Joceyn Pook, using texts from the Catholic liturgy (“Agnus Dei and “Dies irae”) to haunting effect. There’s an actual ghost as well – Diana (Beatrice Walker), whose message (like so many from supernatural sources) is ambiguous. This is a Delphic oracle definitely not to be trusted.
Interestingly, it is Taylor and Bryden who sound most at home with the blank verse format. Powell’s performance gives us a man of principles, capable of exercising his royal perogative and of listening – but not perhaps heeding. As the next generation takes over, Charles grows in stature to become a true tragic hero (more Shakespearean echoes).
Comedy? yes, certainly as the audience response demonstrates. Tragedy? possibly, if you can define that as a man who brings about his own destruction. Reality? who knows?
King Charles III runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 24 October. It can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 14 and 19 March 2016.