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“What am I?” asks King Charles, wistfully, as he tries to fathom the scope of his remit. It’s a matter that preoccupies many of Shakespeare’s monarchs and it’s the driving question of Mike Bartlett’s scintillating and highly audacious new play. Bartlett looks forward, creating a “history play” set in a future in which Prince Charles has ascended the throne. Unlike Shakespeare, Bartlett can write this play without fear of losing his head and its tone is more affectionate and quizzical than critical.
The focus is the present; the battleground the freedom of the press. It results in a brilliant, provocative piece of drama that asks an audience to consider together the nature of power, where it lies and how it is used in contemporary Britain.
In Bartlett’s fantasy, Charles has no sooner become monarch, than he is assailed by principle. His first task is to put his name to a bill restricting press freedom. He twists and turns uncomfortably and finally decides, triggering a constitutional crisis. The outcome turns on the role that the British monarchy seems expected to adopt. En route the debate swings to and fro, as Bartlett probes the powers actual and perceived of politicians, press and sovereign.
Just as Bartlett’s royal characters are suspended between tradition and modernity, so, too, his play is wittily knowing about its antecedents. It unfolds like a history play and is littered with moments that self-consciously recall Shakespeare’s dramas. The characters, as if aware that they have tradition to live up to, mix contemporary jargon with verse, archaic expression and iambic pentameter. It’s very clever and emphasises throughout that this is a playful drama – a “what if?” construction.
A difficult style to pull off but director Rupert Goold handles it with tremendous flair and wit. Tim Pigott-Smith’s Charles is a fine portrayal: ruminative, perplexed, likeable, conscientious and stubborn. Other characters are drolly but not unkindly observed, from Oliver Chris’s upright William and Lydia Wilson’s poised, astute Kate to Richard Goulding’s dishevelled Harry (who falls in love with a republican commoner) and Margot Leicester’s solicitous Camilla. They are surrounded by a swirl of slippery politicians, all equally crafty.
Thought-provoking, serious fun.