Review: King Charles III
A regal display of acting talent
How do you update Shakespeare? It's a question that has plagued the minds of many a director, actor, and reader of the bard's works for centuries. Especially in an increasingly globalised, faster modern world, the task of bringing these timeless classics to the contemporary stage in a way that clearly and effectively fuses our modern sensibilities with their classical ways is a big one.
In King Charles III, Mike Bartlett seems to have found a way to do just that. Written in blank verse, the play explores the possible outcome of Prince Charles becoming crowned monarch following the Queen's death. The play alludes to many Shakespearean moments (there's Lear in "nothing comes of nothing said", a bit of Richard II with overtones of "unkinging") and retains the poetic nature of Shakespeare's verse whilst injecting a fresh, modernised vernacular into the mix. Ferdinand Holley's speech as Charles about Parliament being akin to a SatNav is one such moment – funny, clever, and above all relatably human.
Humanity – its complexity, its warmth, its uncomfortableness – lies at the success of so much of Shakespeare's work, and it lies at the heart of King Charles III as well. The ethical considerations of the bill central to the play's chaos pits freedom against restriction for the sake of safety, and this tension plays out across the whole play, most of all in the sensitive and often hilarious narrative following Prince Harry, played with a brilliant tender innocence by Charlie Morrell-Brown. His speech later on in the show about having nothing to love in the Royal world was a highlight, and along with his comedic timing created a truly rounded out, believable, empathetic character.
In fact, much of the acting here is criminally good: Ferdinand Holley laces his Charles with many of the bemusing mannerisms seen in the still Princely real man; Oliver Jones as PM Mr Evans shows a level of integrity and tact I only wish we'd see in more of our politicians today; Amelia Hills as Leader of the Opposition, Mrs Stevens, expertly deploys exactly the opposite, snaking their way through the play with the deftest of touches; Eduardo Strike makes a wildly funny turn as royal press secretary James Reiss, his sly smiles and knowing glances leaving the audience in stitches. And then you have Luke Cinque-White and Georgia Vyvyan as Prince William and Kate Middleton respectively, pillars of grace mixed with a stirring ambition who captivate both when together and alone.
The direction here, helmed by Issy Snape, is mostly inspired – a mob scene is conjured to great effect with the bubbling action being thrust up into the audience, and the levels of the stage, designed by Christian Swallow, are used well in producing a club, with Harry and his friends above a bobbing crowd of dancers below. However, the set did seem at times to hinder some of the action – whilst the central platform was brilliant at creating the insular world of the Royal and Parliamentary inner circle, it did at times seem to stay stuck in that world, often being a relief when the action did venture back out to the rest of the stage. Further, I only realised when told that the foily backdrop to the stage was supposed to represent a map of London – although whether or not this is due to my lack of London navigation I'm not so sure.
But these slight qualms can hardly begin to derail a show as wonderfully and carefully lead as this one. King Charles III does not recreate Shakespeare – rather, it creates a world of its own in his image, a possible harkening of a new kind of history play. And what a wonderful world it is.