Tuesday 6 May 2014

King Charles III at the Almeida, or, An Unconvincing Fantasy

This attempt at a modern history play has been widely praised by other critics, is sold out for the remainder of its Almeida run, and is already being touted for West End transfer. As far as I'm concerned it has been overpraised.

Mike Bartlett, whose 13 at the National in 2012 also left me unimpressed, appears to have decided that he is up to imitation of Shakespeare on a grand scale. The title gives the first clue, the subject matter the second, the neo-Shakespearean verse writing the third. The results are problematic. Taking the plot first. The play deals with the immediate aftermath of Prince Charles's ascension to the throne. He decides to refuse royal assent to a bill regarding regulation of the press on the grounds that this is contrary to fundamental British freedoms. Before long this has escalated into monarchical dissolution of parliament (with Charles appearing in the precincts a la his Civil War namesake), violent clashes up and down the country, and a tank outside Buckingham Palace. My basic issue with all this was that I just did not find it convincing. In fact during the first half I was driven to considerable irritation by just how unconvincing I found it. If you're going to do a version of the future and you wish to use it to explore issues thoughtfully, as the second half suggests Bartlett wants to do, then failure to convince your audience that pretty nearly precisely this scenario could unfold is fatal. To give three instances of my problems. Firstly, while I agree that Charles is not the Queen and these secret consultations with ministers are troubling in terms of the proper constitutional order I don't believe that he's stupid and I therefore found it simply unbelievable that he would drive the country to the brink of civil war in this way – and particularly not over a bill for regulation of the press. Secondly, while our current class of politicians are a depressingly unprepossessing lot I still do not believe that any leader of the opposition would be stupid enough to abet a monarch in the proceeding shown here, involving a loss of power to the elected political leadership which would affect him should he succeed as a result in replacing the Prime Minister and which would be bound to be used against him in turn. Third, I find it equally difficult to believe that, in this day and age, nobody else would have done anything to stop Charles until the point in Act Two when William intervenes.

The use of neo-Shakespearean verse and the pretty constant shadows of other Shakespeare plays (Macbeth and Henry IV-V were the most obvious) expose further problems. In the context of those plays the monarchy is the only power in town. Pretty nearly everybody accepts the divine right of kings. As a result the state of the monarch produces utterly convincing crises of loyalty for those beneath him. The same applied to Howard Brenton's magnificent 55 Days (a play which was far more telling about the problematic role of monarchy in contempory Britain without deliberately trying to be than this is). I was not convinced, however unreliable Charles might be in comparison to the Queen, that the environments are actually comparable. 2014 just does not seem to me, in this sense, akin to the Wars of the Roses or the 1640s. This is not to say that troubling questions about the monarchy and its power don't remain in our unwritten constitution, but I just can't see them playing out as they do here. As for the verse, well, Bartlett is in no danger of being widely quoted in 400 years time on this showing. Some of it is really cringe inducing, and otherwise it's passable but one longs for the original.

Characterisation is also a problem in this show. Bartlett seems undecided, with most of the characters, as to whether he wants them to be mirrors of their real life counterparts or more imagined creations. The result is problematic inconsistency. No doubt it's a failure of imagination on my part, but I found it difficult to conceive of Kate Middleton as Lady Macbeth or Camilla as so utterly ineffectual (indeed she's so nearly invisible that one wonders why Bartlett wrote her in at all). Then there's the Prince Harry plotline, his romance with a republican art student is another cringe inducing aspect of the piece (one feels for the actress trying to give life to a sadly two dimensional part) but having tried to convince us to feel for him, Bartlett ends up throwing the whole thing down in order to give his conclusion some shadows. All too pat, and once again not convincing. These characters are neither sufficiently removed from reality, nor sufficiently in tune with my understanding of them as real life personages to be dramatically convincing.

The sadness of all this is, as so often with these endeavours, there did seem to me to be a really interesting potential play in this. Charles's musings on Bagehot's definition of the role of the monarchy was potential fertile ground, if only his actions within the play really explored that definition. In Act Two events suddenly seem to hinge on the father-son relationship, but as this has hardly been touched on earlier it also lacks power. The shadow of Diana could have carried weight, but the ghost is poorly written (not helped by Katie Brayben's performance) – and I'm unconvinced (unlike Tim Stanley's weak programme note) that in 2014 the shadows of Diana are what they were in the 1990s.

The failings really can't be blamed on the performers who in the main do their very best with Bartlett's flawed work. The four leading royals (Charles, Kate, William and Harry) are all visually convincing approximations producing some uncanny images but equally adding to the problems of characterisation already discussed. Oliver Chris's William and Lydia Wilson's Kate benefit from having the most consistent and convincingly written parts. Tim Piggott-Smith's Charles is telling in Act Two despite the flaws of plot and speech. Of the rest I enjoyed Adam James's Mr Evans, Nick Sampson's press secretary and Nyasha Hatendi's doubling as kebab shop owner and archbishop.

I have never subscribed to the Rupert Goold fan club. This is a solid piece of direction in terms of the general management of personnel, and there are some striking individual visual moments. That said, I think the singing is overlong in places and the sections of movement feel like pale imitations of devices that others utilise better. There is not the same richness of tension between performers, and cleverness of movement that often characterises the work of someone like Marianne Elliott and her collaborators.

Overall, this is a work which can't decide whether it wants to be a comedic mockery of the royal family and its place in British public life, or a dark prediction of the future. As the former it isn't nearly funny enough (the supply of jokes is too thin, they're insufficiently funny and Beyond the Fringe's send-up of the history plays is miles better cod-Shakespeare). As the latter, the set up is too unconvincing for the serious points to carry the weight that they should (obviously if Charles and the political class do prove to be that stupid I shall be the first to admit how wrong I was). This is not an instance where I would advise you not to bother going should it transfer. There are points of interest and moments of power. But it is a long way from being the great new history play for our times that others have proclaimed it to be.

Finally, there is an achievement in this performance which deserves one of our occasional Where's Runnicles Awards. The inaugural Mike Bartlett Award for Having Unfortunate Delusions of Shakespeare goes to Mike Bartlett.

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