Long live the King? Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III at the Almeida Theatre

Rupert Goold kicked off his tenure as Artisitic Director of the Almeida with a bang with American Psycho and his next production King Charles III, which has its press night this Thursday, had me equally intrigued and excited when it was announced. Not only was it an interesting concept, directed by Goold but it was to be written by one of my favourite playwrights Mike Bartlett, whose work always gives me food for thought and plenty to discuss long after I have left the theatre and this is no exception.

Billed as a future history play, it chronicles our country’s potential future once the Queen is no longer here and the crown passes to Prince Charles. Already a subject which is ripe with possibilities and opinions on those possibilities (Should Camilla be Queen? Should Charles step aside for William and Kate?) and at a time when Australia and New Zealand are welcoming the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their Royal tour, this production couldn’t be more perfectly timed.

Beginning in the immediate wake of the Queen’s death, Prince Charles is finally King after decades waiting in the wings and he wants to be remembered as more than a Spitting Image puppet. In reality we are very much aware that Prince Charles has been known to involve himself in politics and Bartlett builds on this from the outset. A new Bill has been passed on privacy and control of the press – it simply requires Royal Assent. However when the Prime Minister arrives for his first weekly audience it becomes clear that obtaining this ceremonial seal of approval may not be quite as easy as he thought it would be. What follows is an interesting glance in to one possible future for a country less certain of its identity after the loss of the only ruler most of its citizens have ever known.

Adam James and Tim Pigott-Smith by Johan Persson
Adam James and Tim Pigott-Smith by Johan Persson

It is a bit of a slow burner as the scene is set and the audience adjusts to seeing the Royal Family on stage (some of the similarities in looks alone is a little surreal!). However as the story progressed I became absorbed by it, wondering what direction Bartlett has chosen to take in this alternate United Kingdom. The brilliance here is also his chosen writing style for the play – it is structured in the style of a Shakespearian History play! There is a mix of modern and more Jacobean prose and also verse. It may sound off putting to some but it works superbly, adding an extra dimension to the production. This could have been just a comical look at the Royals, but it feels oddly authentic by being structured in a style through which the stories of so many other famous monarchs have been told. For me the second half was much stronger, building the drama and culminating in some superbly powerful scenes and its final moments (complete with glorious Latin singing) gave me goosebumps.

There are some excellent performances too, especially Tim Pigott-Smith who plays Charles as a man daunted by the role he now has to play. As he himself says, everyone expected him to already have fully formed opinions ready to go, but instead he is uncertain and fearful of simply being a ceremonial relic. There were moments I felt sympathy for him and others where he led me to incredible frustration at his inability to see the damage his actions were causing around him. Adam James (a regular in Bartlett’s work) is another strong member of the cast, as the Prime Minister struggling to know how to walk the fine line between respecting his King and standing up for the democratic system of government on which our political system is based. I found his scenes with Pigott-Smith to be some of the most dramatic of the play, particularly when he reminds Charles about how the Queen carried out what was expected of her. The other strong performance for me was that of Lydia Wilson as Kate. She makes it clear to the audience in her soliloquy-style speech that she does not intend to play merely a supporting role to William, but will stand as an equal partner in both marriage and as Queen whenever the time comes.

Lydia Wilson and Oliver Chris by Johan Persson
Lydia Wilson and Oliver Chris by Johan Persson

Oliver Chris’s William begins quietly but steadily grows in strength and character and over the course of the previews so far Oliver has grown in confidence in the role. His scenes with his father in the second half are brilliantly acted by them both and you could have heard a pin drop in the audience. Richard Goulding has already come a long way as Harry. Last week he seemed far too much of a characterure and although this is still a little true, he is already brining far more depth to the role. His subplot carries the humour of the play, as we see him questioning his future and a scene in which he receives sage advice in a kebab shop was a favourite of mine. Tafline Steen is good as Jess, the normal girl with a unique opportunity to observe this famous family’s internal dynamic, Nicholas Rowe skilfully portrays the opposition leader, stirring the pot all the time in the background and I liked Nick Sampson’s portrayal of the weary press secretary.

Tafline Steen and Richard Goulding by Johan Persson
Tafline Steen and Richard Goulding by Johan Persson

There is little set but this is absolutely the right choice and I was reminded just how small a performance space the Almeida is when the brickwork drum of the walls are exposed. A simple faded painting lines the central part of the back wall, which when subtly lit gave a sense of the watchful public and mood lighting and sound set the tones of the various moments very well. I also loved the singing, particularly for the wonderfully powerful final moments. My only slight grumble is the brief appearances of a certain ghost. I understand the reason behind its inclusion – this is after all a Shakespearian-style History play and where would one of those be without a ghostly encounter, but it did make me cringe and caused awkward laughter amongst some of the audience both times I’ve seen it.

Overall I think this is a fantastic new play. It is already so much stronger than after its second preview and I’m sure it will continue to develop. King Charles III is not going to appeal to everyone, but it is different and daring as it makes us consider the future of our country as we may not have done before. If Rupert Goold’s seasons continue to be this varied and exciting, I imagine I’ll be visiting the Almeida quite a lot over the coming years!

King Charles III runs at the Almeida Theatre until 31 May 2014. Tickets are available from the theatre’s website:




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