The Queen is dead, long live the King. Mike Bartlett’s “future history” play King Charles III opens with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, and her son finally ascends to the throne. The aged, meddling prince turns into a King and this epic royal family drama in the best Shakespearean tradition begins.
There are political, literary and cultural resonances to this play. The plot is of a very mythic story, but with much more modern stakes: a King oversteps his power; the very foundations of a country are under threat; a son sacrificing his father for righteousness. The very political Prince Charles is finally King, and as a grieving son, and an aged, powerful man, without full realisation and seemingly innocuously, he uses his largely ceremonial powers to contravene the democratic Government to assert his own will. King Charles III refuses to give royal assent to a bill he disagrees with: after a lifetime of waiting he doesn’t know how to rule.
A friend based in London saw this play performed on the West End in Wyndham’s Theatre, and bought the script to send to me on the other side of the world because she wished I was there to watch it with her. After studying theatre and Shakespeare with her, I can see why: somehow Bartlett has created a completely contemporary, relevant play working with the Shakespearean form. Written in dramatic verse, structure is as strong or loose as the characters are: lines break down as The Firm come under threat. Instead of a copy-cat aping, it feels like this script is stronger because of the way Bartlett masterfully handles the verse form.
Themes, too, are appropriate for the scope and reach of this possible alternate history play: Charles is almost Macbeth-like as he descends into a kind of madness-lite, seeking counsel only in a ghost and himself. Like King Lear, the future of the realm is at stake while the King, one old man, gets older. The actions of the play are beautifully contained within the story, at yet the potential larger repercussions of the characters’ actions feel very real, as if they sit within the cycle of a history play.
This is also a delicious script to read, and I wish I had seen it performed live: it is funny, and so unbelievably real I compulsively read it all in one morning. It is bold, entertaining, intelligent and provocative: Bartlett has balanced elements of pathos, humour, strength and wit all within the potentially overwhelming structure and form of a renaissance history play. But it works, and it is so good to read.
This is such a good script: smart, funny, bold, and achingly believable. I read verses aloud to myself on my couch to fully appreciate how this timeless story was communicated in a contemporary context. A quick-witted, modern play, working an ageless form. I loved it.