Our reviewer Marion Beauchamp-Levet enjoys the murky politics, humour and Shakespearean parallels in this new adaptation of Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III.
The opening night of King Charles III, Mike Bartlett’s critically acclaimed play, occurred on Tuesday 7 November at the ADC Theatre in Cambridge. Directed by Issy Snape and produced by Gaia Fay Lambert, the adaptation of this brilliant yet unsettling ‘future history’ drama managed to recreate Bartlett’s energetic, intense and, at times, chaotic atmosphere, despite a few muddled moments.
The plot of the play is, in itself, quite simple: after Elizabeth II passes, Prince Charles becomes king and must now handle the difficult task of being Head of State without the power to actually impact the law-making process of his country. Asked to sign a bill aimed at restricting the freedom of the press, he is caught in the grip of a moral dilemma and ultimately refuses to give his assent, in an attempt to protect one of Britain’s most democratic rights. From there, the story unravels. The Government, the Opposition, Kate and William (in that very precise order) – every one engages in a conflict against the King, who, they all think, has overstepped the mark. The British people are but rarely present even though largely mentioned. Their appearance on stage takes the form of rioters or a simple Doner Girl. Instead, we witness the figurehead of power in Britain on the edge of collapse. Struggle and, eventually, chaos take place on stage. Democracy, monarchy and revolution are all challenged realities and the ending (which I will not reveal) does not offer a pure and simplistic answer to these issues.
This is what makes the play so brilliant, and in many respects, anchors it in Shakespearean tradition. The very political identity of contemporary Britain, set in the duality between monarchy and Parliament, is gradually torn to pieces before ultimately regaining some sort of stability – but at what price? The audience watches the final scene in a very intense and unsettling ambience; one’s overwhelming feeling, whilst watching the action unfold, is that this is the lesser of two – or even more – evils.
To convey this ambiguity, this feeling of immense doubt and of being lost in a chaotic world without having the option of escaping it, was the splendid achievement of the cast, together with the director and producer. Even if they were helped by Mike Bartlett’s powerful text, the actors were completely up to the task of making it real without losing any of its strength. Their energy was clearly palpable and they perfectly conveyed the force of the drama. And the shift from moments of comedy, farce and burlesque to those of tragedy was skilfully managed.
Some roles demand a particular shout-out. Even though it lasted no more than five minutes – in a play that lasted two-and-a-half-hours– the scene with the Doner Girl was impeccably executed. The actors succeeded in conveying its full Shakespearean dimension. For indeed, as in many of Shakespeare’s plays, common sense appears where you least expect it (in this case, in a kebab shop late at night) and is uttered by an individual who is least likely to express it: the Doner Girl. Thus she represents the voice of simple, unadulterated truth in a turbulent, corrupt world.
Another Shakespearean feature of the play appeared in the form of the Leader of the (Conservative) Opposition, whose absolute Machiavellianism would have given Lady Macbeth, Tamora or Edgar a run for their money. Instead of creating a caricature of a right-wing politician, the actress played this role with more subtlety and finesse, giving the character a kind of Richard III quality that befitted the purpose of the play.
Yet, one could not help feeling that a little polishing of this first performance wouldn’t have hurt. Perhaps this is a minor point, but when some of the actors stammered during their lines it diminished the impact of their delivery and characterisation. In addition to this the decor was, in my opinion, the most regrettable feature of this adaptation. In the first twenty minutes some of it accidentally fell down and it looked much too used in general. Not only was the scenery a slight distraction, but it left Snape’s and Lambert’s version of the play slightly muddled and contradicted the overall brilliance of the production.
For this is indeed a must-see play. It resonates even more particularly today as democracy all over the world is being put to the test by far-right movements and with populism feeding off its flaws. Although King Charles III is set in a fake future Britain, it undeniably goes further than that. Aside from representing the murky world of politics, this is a funny ‘future history’ drama full of gifted actors and fine performances. If you don’t really feel like spending the night pondering the flaws of political systems, go see the play for its humour and delightful casting. You won’t regret it!
King Charles III will be shown from 6-10 November 2018 at the ADC Theatre. Click here for more information.