King Charles III arrives at Manchester Opera House surrounded by a haze of hype, awards and five star reviews. It turns out that it’s well-deserved. Directed by Rupert Goold, the Almeida Theatre’s production envisages a not too distant future where the Queen is dead and Prince Charles has ascended to the throne. But to the consternation of Parliament, the royal family and the kingdom, Charles has his own ideas about how to rule.
Robert Powell is excellent in the title role, showing both strength and vulnerability in the king’s turbulent relationship with power. Much reference is made to his age, and the stable rule/iconic status enjoyed by his mother. Charles’ refusal to sign a bill restricting the freedom of the press is the catalyst for the play’s action – he further exercises his royal prerogative in unorthodox fashion by dissolving Parliament and stationing a tank outside Buckingham Palace. Ultimately, Charles has his power wrestled from him by Prince William and Kate, who force him to abdicate. Charles’ plea “my little boys” when confronted by both of his sons is truly heart-breaking, as is the final moment in the play, when he trips down the steps at the coronation and is left crouched on the floor, vulnerable and alone.
King Charles III cultivates links with Shakespeare’s history plays – from the choice of title, to the set (a mock medieval room with wooden parquet floor, giant candles in stands and a red-carpeted raised dais in the centre of the stage) and the sung passages in Latin. Most importantly, Mike Bartlett’s script is in rhythmic blank verse and full of references to Shakespeare – characters announce each other on to the stage, Kate calls William “my good husband” and Prince Harry, who functions as the comic relief, speaks in prose (much like Shakespeare’s minor comic characters, such as the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream).Harry’s storyline includes romantic involvement with Jess, an irreverent commoner, which feels a little cliche – though the brutal manner in which Harry severs all ties with her in the final scene certainly doesn’t.
More obviously, a ghostly apparition of Princess Diana appears to both Charles and William encouraging them to embrace kingship as their destiny, much as the Witches appear to Macbeth and Banquo. Further echoes of the Scottish play occur in the Duchess of Cambridge’s emergence as a Lady Macbeth figure, cursing the female stereotype imposed on her and pushing William to take the crown from his father. It is a wordy, meaty script but well worth concentrating on.
This fantastic, totally unique piece of theatre fully deserves all its awards – it also deserves much bigger audiences than the one that was in the Opera House on Wednesday night, and I hope it gets them as the tour continues.