This review was originally written for The Public Reviews.
The Queen is dead. Prince Charles can finally fulfill his lifelong destiny and become king. His opinionated and maverick style of rule begins with an audience with not just the Prime Minister, but also the opposition leader. But more seriously, he chooses to exercise his refusal of the Royal Assent on a press privacy bill which for many years has only been a ceremonial formality. A constitutional and democratic chaos ensues and all concludes with a cheeky and perhaps popular outcome.
Mike Bartlett modelled this play on Shakespeare’s work with plots such as the king’s misuse of power early in his reign, a descent into delusion, a son usurping his father and even a ghostly apparition. Indeed much of the dialogue is in blank verse for the scenes in court. Also Shakespearean are some great speeches such as Charles’ passionate protestation of his puppet role whose opinions are treated as public amusement and with a well countered reply from the Prime Minister. Sources of diverse opinions come from Harry and his love interest Jess, providing their view of an alternative to the Royal lifestyle with Jess representing the republican view.
It is as much a comedy as a history play with the public personas of the Royal family sketched out to great amusement. In the first scene: Kate is bland, Harry likes to party and Camila is quick to patronise. But that it reins in the caricature and builds those persona into genuine characters is the triumph. These personalities along with the hypothetical situation are played to the limit of logical possibility but well within the legal and constitutional framework. Though it is not flawless with some bloatedness here and there, the play manages the fine line between complete fiction and plausibility that helps to maintain its grip on the audience.
Rupert Goold’s production is dynamic and bookended by a state funeral and a coronation, both dramatic and solemn and choreographed with stirring music befitting the occasions turning the modestly sized Almeida into Westminster Abbey. Designed by Tom Scutt, the versatile and effective purple dais stage comes with mounted fragments of ancient wall paintings of faces and people that stretches all around and into the auditorium. This blends with the bare brick wall behind so well that one questions whether it is part of the set at all and yet it is effective in saying that the monarchy is under constant public scrutiny from ages past.
Tim Pigott-Smith is excellent as Charles, managing to play it loose and slightly unhinged yet completely naturalistic. The rest of the cast is more than merely lookalikes. Richard Goulding as the disheveled version of Harry shines with his deep yearning for his warped sense of normality. Oliver Chris’ William is quiet but can take charge as soon as he is called upon and Lydia Wilson can be the real Kate without anyone noticing.
This play is a reflection of this point of time in history, its future and a portraiture of the public perception of the Royal family. It is a thoroughly satisfying, at times gripping and funny production which speaks more truth than one would want to consider.
Photo: Johan Persson