Review: King Charles III (Almeida Theatre)

stcVenue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Mar 31 – Apr 30, 2016
Playwright: Mike Bartlett
Director: Rupert Goold, Whitney Mosery
Cast: Jennifer Bryden, Richard Glaves, Dominic Jephcott, Geoffrey Lumb, Lucy Phelps, Carolyn Pickles, Robert Powell, Ben Righton, Giles Taylor, Tim Treloar, Beatrice Walker, Paul Westwood, Emily Swain, Emily-Celine Thomson, Ryan Whittle, Karl Wilson
Image by Richard Hubert-Smith

Theatre review
Many consider the monarchy to be an archaic and irrelevant institution. It is constantly under scrutiny and criticism, mostly for the notion that it bleeds the economy of money without seeming to contribute anything concrete. In Mike Bartlett’s imagined near future, Prince Charles finally ascends the throne, and we are presented with the astonishing circumstance of the new king exerting his right to influence governance of the United Kingdom. The silent figurehead decides to act according to his conscience, and opposes the passage of a new law by parliament, which results in unadulterated pandemonium and excellent drama. Bartlett’s story about the most famous family in the world is part Shakespearean, part tabloid influenced. The high and low brow concoction speaks to our perceptions about the royals; we think of them as enigmatic, grand and otherworldly, but also as gossip fodder, with petty concerns that our curiosity feels entitled to.

The show begins with exquisite humour, then develops increasingly heavy, ultimately ending in great pessimism similar to many cautioning fables about governments and democracy. Even though energy levels drop significantly as the plot turns serious, both its comedic and dramatic aspects are effectively conveyed. We are gripped by its fast moving scenes, each one short and scintillating, as though on steroids courtesy of prime-time TV. Its familiar personalities are seen just the way we expect them to be, but with additional dimensions that provide surprises to the startling narratives that unfold. Bartlett’s dialogue is endlessly amusing in its juxtaposition of contemporary speech with Shakespearean conventions, which the cast delivers with impressive skill and fluency.

Richard Glaves is a memorable Prince Harry, endearing and vulnerable just the way many would wish him to be. Humour in the production is extremely contained, but Glaves is able to find a sense of mischief within the restraints, consistently depicting emotional authenticity while asserting the entertaining qualities of his role. Charles is played by Robert Powell, imposing and noble, utterly believable as King. His portrayal bears little cosmetic resemblance to the character we see regularly on the news, but is full of nuance and texture. Even though appropriately stoic and stiff upper lipped, Powell brings complexity and psychological accuracy to the piece, replete with humane ambiguities that challenge our moralistic judgements. We find our opinions about Charles constantly shifting as we gain an increasingly deeper understanding of his nature and intentions.

We look for bad guys in the play, but there are no convenient answers. Democracy is what we value most in the collective entity we term society, and its machinations are evaluated in King Charles III in a theatrical but honest way. There are many Australians passionate about turning our country into a republic, and the play certainly pleads a strong argument for that case. Our democracy may be flawed but it is what we hold dear. In the play, Charles is a good man, and could well be a great leader, but he is not appointed by the people and further, unprotected by our legal and political processes. Civilisations need to work towards greater transparency, so that our progress may reach closer to democratic ideals, but the monarchy, by definition, contravenes those principles we revere in the highest regard. This story seems a wild one, but it resonates strongly and we believe its outrageous scenarios to be plausible, implying that there are dangers in our current systems, which although underestimated and overlooked, are in fact gravely threatening.