King Charles III Poster

‘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 KING CHARLES III by Bartlett,        , Writer - Mike Bartlett, Director -  Rupert Goold, Design - Tom Scutt, Composor - Jocelyn Pook, Lighting - Jon Clark, Almeida Theatre, London, UK, 2014, Credit: Johan Persson - www.perssonphotography.comboundaries 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.

King-Charles-III-Almeida-LondonThe 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.

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The Civil Shortlist

The Contenders

Well the plays have been revisited, the little grey cells put back into action and the oracle consulted. In short and without further ado, Civilian Theatre is proud to present the runners and riders in the inaugural shortlist for The Civil Awards. [Cue much fanfare, fireworks and underhand, dirty trick campaigns].

Bribes, whilst having little effect on the outcome, will still be gratefully received. Your comments and opinions are also welcomed.

Winners will revealed next week following a countdown of the Top 10 plays of 2013.

Best Actor – Male

  • James McAvoy          Macbeth (Macbeth)
  • David Tennant          Richard II (Richard II)
  • Serge Maggiani        Berenger (Rhinoceros)
  • Henry Goodman       Arturo Ui (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui)
  • Rory Kinnear            Iago (Othello)

Best Actor – Female

Best Supporting Actor

  • Kyle Soller                     Gaveston (Edward II)
  • Vanessa Kirby               Isabella (Edward II)
  • Jonathan Slinger           Parolles (All’s Well That Ends Well)
  • Ben Whishaw                Baby (Mojo)
  • William Gaunt                Dogsborough (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui)

Best Director

  • Susan Stroman              The Scottsboro Boys
  • Katie Mitchell                  Fraulein Julie
  • Jamie Lloyd                    Macbeth
  • Declan Donnellan           Ubu Roi
  • Gregory Doran               Richard II

Theatre / Theatre Company of the Year

  • Young Vic
  • Barbican Centre
  • Trafalgar Transformed
  • Harold Pinter Theatre

Surprise of the Year

Best thing to happen in theatre in 2013

  • The amount of £10 seats for the Michael Grandage season
  • Rupert Goold appointed as the next artistic director of the Almeida
  • The opening of The Shed

Biggest disappointment of the year

  • Not going to see Chimerica
  • The general flat direction and conservative productions in the Michael Grandage season
  • Ben Whishaw and Judi Dench in Peter and Alice 

Worse thing to happen in theatre in 2013

  • The growing trend to not allow people to book seats so that there is only one left on its own
  • The continuing upward creep of top-end theatre ticket prices
  • The cull of theatre critics across the mainstream press

Hiddleston’s impresses as Hal but Eyre’s Henry can’t quite match Goold’s Richard

Henry IV part I: The Hollow Crown – BBC 2  / BBC HD

Following the rapturous reception received by Goold’s treatment of Richard II was always going to be a challenge; the highly experienced Richard Eyre was assigned the task of continuing The Hollow Crown through Henry IV parts I and II, and on last night’s offering is set to deliver a textually inventive if slightly visually austere riposte.

Overall The Hollow Crown concept has been left a little exposed – clever and audience-enticing as it may be – as the stylistic dissimilarities mean that, other than the continuation of history, there is little in Henry IV part I that audiences would recognise from the filmic vistas of Goold’s Richard II.

Fortunately Shakespeare is not constrained by the straightjacket of slick BBC publishing. Henry IV part I is a play that needs no extra gloss; it contains his most-loved character in Falstaff and gives the audience, as Simon Schama pointed to in his recent documentary, a view of England from the bottom-up. This is in direct contrast to a Richard II that inhabited the world of kings and noble elites.

It’s also a play in which Shakespeare sketches out, in Prince Hal, the images that he would shade in later in one of his greatest creations, Hamlet – complete with two fathers (Falstaff and Henry IV pre-empting Claudius and the Ghost) and a play within a play (the great Act II Scene IV where Hal, in the guise of his Father, banishes Falstaff).

There is a seismic shift in language between Richard II and Henry IV. The world of Richard’s verse has been replaced by the more naturalistic prose of Henry Bolingbroke, now Henry IV. It serves to emphasise the working people that inhabit the play; the phrasing and speech reflects the way people actually talk to one another. It reflects a changing England; the shattering of Richard’s divine right and replaced by a, now frail and ill, Henry IV paranoid to the threat of conspirators. There is no place in this landscape for the playful verse that marked Richard II. This point is rammed home by Shakespeare through Harry Percy who ridicules and undercuts the fanciful imagery put forward by Glendower about his birth.

The core of Henry IV is not, of course, the King but his son, Prince Hal. Falstaff may steal the show but he is not the heart; the heart is the relationship of Hal to his two fathers, the King and the Fool, and the inevitable renunciation of the latter in order to safeguard the former.

In this production Eyre appears to have taken a very deliberate step to recast Hal and Falstaff’s relationship away from the loving underpinnings with which it is normally shown. It is usual to show a warmth and affection in Hal when he undercuts Falstaff’s numerous embellishments but here there is coldness in Tom Hiddleston’s Hal. This is introduced from the very opening scenes of the play and Hal’s speech where he talks of renouncing his way of life; it is delivered in voiceover and there is an added potency to lines like ‘So when this loose behaviour I throw off’ [I.ii] given out in contemptuous manner at the same time as Hiddleston’s Hal strides through the Boar’s Head. Outwardly he is smiling, winking, interacting, whilst his interior monologue makes clear he understands that he is just playing a part that will be discarded.

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Masterful Richard II proves the BBC does ‘do’ Shakespeare

Richard II – BBC2 and BBC HD, until late July 2012

Settling into watching Richard II in glorious HD on the BBC last night it was difficult to ignore the Beeb’s previous ill-fated attempts to engage with ‘the Bard’. Whilst Civilian Theatre has a better opinion than most of the BBC’s attempt to film all the Shakespeare plays; where else could we see an Othello with Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins as the leads, or a young Helen Mirren playing Rosalind in As You Like It and Imogen in Cymbeline – it is still hard to avoid the criticisms of wobbly sets and at times really duff stage-to-screen acting.

However the BBC’s reputation has been pulled significantly out of the mire after their last two adaptations of acclaimed stage productions – Tennant’s Hamlet and Stewart’s Macbeth- received sensitive transitions. Goold’s Macbeth in particular had a visual style that was magnificently assured given his background as a stage director. So hearing that he had been tasked with opening proceedings with Richard II did a lot to calm the nerves.

This calm was only reinforced by the sweeping shot across Richard II’s court; Ben Wishaw as Richard; Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt; Rory Kinnear as his son, Bolingbroke; the two David’s – Suchet and Morrisey – as father and son of York; and James Purefroy, steaming under armour as Mowbray. It goes without saying that once such accomplished actors are placed in position then there is little left to do but let them unfurl Shakespeare’s glorious language.

Richard II, compared to the rest of the history plays, is difficult. It has less of the cartoonish villain that makes Richard III such a crowd-pleaser; it lacks a comic core of Falstaff or the jingoism of Henry V. It is a wordy play about a poor king and bitter nobles. To make it worse Shakespeare, as a stylistic tic, vastly increases the amount of rhyming verse. For those untrained in plays of the era the language is often perceived to be a barrier – and Richard II does risk encapsulating everything that people think they dislike about Shakespeare – it is difficult, unnatural and can be hard to follow.

Goold and the cast respond to this challenge magnificently. For perhaps the first time we see that TV could have the edge of stage productions in some aspects. The history plays, far more than the tragedies and comedies, are complex, difficult and rely on a certain level of prior-knowledge that Shakespeare contemporaries would have had but that current audiences, for the most part, lack.

The ability to zoom-in, jump-cut and provide proper location filming – sweeping landscapes and equisite interiors that provide a true sense of time and place – thus provides an essential element in driving the plot. No longer must we scan the faces of a court scene to decide who Richard is castigating, the camera does this for us. Some may cry foul but this is both good TV – no-one needs completely static shots – and also good for accessibility. It is a period location but that does not mean that modern stylistic devices shouldn’t be used.

Goold deserves a huge amount of credit. This, and his Macbeth, were excellent adaptations that demonstrated he has a natural eye for balance and an assured touch. He may well work alongside a mighty fine cinematographer but having seen a number of his plays staged, it is clear that he has an innate understanding of composition and brings to the theatre filmic elements and here he proves he can work his artistry in reverse.

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Watch out George R. R. Martin, Shakespeare’s coming

The BBC certainly seem to have taken a leaf out of HBO’s book with their new preview trailer for their Shakespeare Unlocked series. Right down to the title ‘The Hollow Crown’ – a fabulously fantasy touch – they have gone out of their way to draw on the huge water-cooler success of Game of Thrones.

With season 2 drawing to a close on Sky Atlantic, it seems like the perfect opportunity to launch The Hollow Crown – four successive history plays from Richard II through to Henry V. The cast looks suitably stellar as every high-profile actor going has put themselves forward for some high profile thesping. The limited casting released on the BBC Website hints at the quality – Rory Kinnear, Tom Hiddlestone, Ben Wishaw and the mighty Patrick Stewart (getting the rights to one of Shakespeare’s most well known speeches in ‘this royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle…’). 

And the trailer? Well isn’t this just mouthwatering.