King Charles III (Theatre Royal, Brighton)

King Charles III (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until January 13th)

It has already been described as a modern classic. Catch the terrific King Charles III now on tour after its award-winning West End run and you find yourself thrown into a juicy drama mixing the intrigue of Shakespeare’s history plays with a thought-provoking contemporary reflection on the Crown and constitution.

Writer Mike Bartlett’s epic drama is a “future history play,” imagining a rapid crisis following the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, when the new king is asked to sign a bill regulating the press – a hypothetical dilemma  which is all too believable in the current climate of media freedom and which snowballs into civil unrest and family disagreement.

The fact that the play is written in blank verse means it is impossible not to think of some of the Bard’s great plays: but is this king who feels duty bound to exercise his responsibility beyond mere ceremonial figurehead more of Richard II, Henry IV or Henry VI? Are there even shades of tragedy woven into the story – could this Charles be more of a King Lear, or his eldest son and daughter-in-law be in the scheming mould of the Macbeths? And there is certainly comedy, with some fun had in the verse style and observations about our nation and its people, as well as an amusing subplot with a sting in its tale.

There are echoes of other Shakespeare regulars too, such as the kebab seller’s wise “fool” and the newspaper vendor’s “chorus” and there’s even a ghost to promise both king and prince that they will be “the greatest king ever.”

It is a fascinating approach and one wonders if the play would work quite as well without the iambic pentameter. The device gives the piece a richness and depth, while skilfully including modern slang and thinking (there’s some wicked fun to be had when hearing about Sainsbury’s and busby-wearing guardsmen uttered in such a rhythmic fashion).

It’s also another slick directorial triumph for Rupert Goold (sharing the honours on tour with Whitney Mosery), with a simple yet imposing set by Tom Scutt and evocative music by Jocelyn Pook.

The cast is universally excellent, with several playing more than one role to fine effect. In the title role Robert Powell never once impersonates Charles yet we can recognise the pain of the aged monarch  trying to do the right thing for the country as duty demands, torn between being grateful to his mother for her long reign and feeling his moment in the spotlight has come too late. His soliloquies are often heartbreaking, as he comes to realise the true hollowness of the royal crown, increasingly haunted and alone.   

Strong performances too from a well-paired Ben Righton as a sensible and forthright William with his eye on the throne and Jennifer Bryden as intelligent strategist Kate, both likeable but also shrewd. Richard Glaves is good as the party-loving and passionate Harry, whose attraction to a young republican art student (Lucy Phelps, first class as Jess) causes him to consider life as a commoner; Penelope Beaumont is a pushy Camilla; while Tim Treloar and Giles Taylor are top notch as a firebrand Prime Minister and sly Leader of the Opposition who find themselves in a Crown vs State row which could even signal the breakdown of the nation.

King Charles III on tour is the epitome of great theatre and will send audiences away thinking about its content and delivery long after the production has ended. There must surely be a William V awaiting in this enthralling House of Windsor saga.

David Guest