‘Go some of you and fetch a looking glass’; writing for kings in the 21st century
King Charles III – Almeida Theatre, until 31 May 2014 (Day Seats & Returns only)
Civilian Theatre was one of many celebrating when Rupert Goold snagged the job of Artistic Director at the Almeida and given the unenviable task of continuing the success of Michael Attenborough’s 11-year tenure. Based on his opening salvo; the intentionally eye-catching American Psycho: The Musical before bringing in his former company with the Headlong-produced 1984, it appears Goold has a canny sense of how to blur the boundaries between popular and elitist theatre.
Appropriately enough the issue of succession is at the heart of the first play Goold has personally directed at the venue; Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III. Another well-judged choice, Bartlett’s play cannot fail to appeal to all audiences. Much has been made of the Shakespearian overtones but the true success of the play is that it is a hugely enjoyable piece of, what Bartlett calls, ‘future history’, which also raises questions that Britain as a country will need to confront in time.
Like Jerusalem this is proper state of the nation theatre and it is heartening to see a playwright unapologetically examine ‘big issues’ on such a grand scale. Bartlett demonstrates that verse has its place in modern drama and that audiences needn’t be turned off by the use of heightened language. The use of iambic pentameter isn’t purely to demonstrate Bartlett’s skill as a poet but because he is dealing with characters that are simultaneously entirely real and, to the majority of us, entirely unknowable.
The greatest PR trick that royalty has ever pulled off was to create this public image and then to strenuously avoid revealing their true face. Our current Queen has studiously kept to this template and it is notable that it is only when the mask slips that the public begins to question their value. As we enter a new era, the age of Will and Kate and of smartphones and public accessibility, this model is in a state of flux and Bartlett has pitched Charles’ succession as the moment that the new and old world will collide.
The use of verse is a way into this private world. How can prose be placed into the mouths of people who are so recognisable but so unknown? We cannot know how they really speak behind closed doors and so creating a state of unreality through artifice is a way to reach some kind of truth. It also allows Bartlett pre-existing conventions to slip seamlessly between conversation and monologue. We are permitted into an inner-realm, not just the closed world of the monarchy but the private consciousness of its key figures.
The allusions come thick and fast and for those who know Shakespeare there is much fun to be had in spotting the references. However Bartlett ensures that this is not to the detriment of those who haven’t been schooled in all the History plays and a fair portion of the tragedies. The characters he draws are fascinating in their own right and capture the essence of who they are. It is perhaps Prince Harry who is closest to caricature but how could one resist when he is built to be modelled on the classic arc of Hal in Henry IV Part I and II.