Following the death of his mother Queen Elizabeth II, her successor, the current Prince Charles, about to be crowned king, holds the government and the entire country to ransom. It’s not just a tremendous idea for a play: Mike Bartlett’s “King Charles III” has what sounds like an ideal formal device up his sleeve. He has written this self-styled “future history play” in blank verse, thereby echoing Shakespeare’s history plays about past kings. Too bad, therefore, that his execution and Rupert Goold’s production are only fitfully as strong as the play’s headline-grabbing concept.
Much has been made in the press about the project’s audacity, a notion seemingly borne out by the opening sequence of the black-suited, candle-bearing cast singing a requiem for the death of the queen. Peculiarly, this overextended movement sequence to a literally reverberant but uninspired Jocelyn Pook score is insipidly staged and lacking, well, majesty. An equally plodding approach to exposition — all talk, no action — and overly explanatory dialogue bedevils much of the lengthy and slack first half.
Springing cunningly from a real dilemma currently facing the present-day government, the play’s focal point is a parliamentary bill supported by both major parties to curb the powers of the nation’s free press. It is the new king’s duty merely to sign the bill into law, since U.K. monarchs do not control the government and cannot disagree publicly or oppose government decisions. But Charles (a doughty, increasingly anguished Tim Pigott-Smith) profound disagrees with the notion that his country will have a press that’s not free, and when visited by his prime minister (a nicely energized Adam James), he refuses to sign.
Because the real-life Charles holds famously conservative views and remains widely disparaged because of his behavior toward his late-wife, Diana, this makes Bartlett’s idea unexpected and intriguing. But the handling of it, particularly in terms of his verse, wobbles between the self-conscious and the self-satisfied. Ironically, Bartlett’s finest work — notably his taut, hit play “Cock” — achieves eloquence through the terseness of his writing. This switch into labored, mock-Shakespearean verse neither plays to that strength nor releases any poetic gift. Too often the bite of a idea or a comment is weakened by the need to fit it into verse-form. It only rarely hits the level of doggerel, but equally rarely does it manage to make a sufficient case for itself.
The journalistic tendency for scandalmongering is handled via the subplot of press intrusion into the love life of one of Charles’ sons, the feckless, ginger-haired, rule-breaking Prince Harry, played by Richard Goulding with a winningly light touch. Bartlett shifts him from being an idiotic liability to the Royal Family brand to becoming suddenly idealized via his new relationship with art student and ardent young Republican Jess (Tafline Steen).
Bartlett switches audiences’ expectations with almost all his characters, having initially set up (in every sense) the royal family with a satirical tone. Using classic English middle-class parlance, Charles serves tea, asking, “Shall I be mother?” (The first half is riddled with that kind of crowd-pleasing gag.) And Kate (Lydia Wilson) is gradually revealed to be the reverse of her popular image. Instead of being merely attractive enough to marry and provide children for Prince William (Oliver Chris), she is the power behind the throne. Even William’s late mother, Diana (Katie Brayben), makes appearances as a ghostly character of conscience for Charles.
In a change of directorial style, Goold oversees a remarkably stripped-down production that plays out across the unchanging, carpeted dais of Tom Scutt’s simple but effective set lit with contrasting angles and moods by Jon Clark. Scenes, however, lack energy. Goold, who has directed powerful Shakespeare productions at the RSC, brings neither pace nor punch to lesser verse and, in the first half, allows pause-ridden speaking to sap things still further.
The shorter second half, in which the dramatic means are overtaken by plot machinations, is far more successful. With forced jocularity abandoned in favor of the now fully wound action, the stakes climb. With neat echoes of Shakespeare’s “Richard II” deployed for the trapped king, tension appears, the welcome element of surprise is added, and the evening is freed from predictability.
Local reviews, little short of ecstatic, may catapult the production to the West End. Producers would certainly need that boost if they wanted to move a play so focused around detailed British concerns to any other country.