The arrival of a new monarch is often to be feared, especially after a long and stable reign. But the very nature of this form of government (usually) requires a death to occur before a new age is ushered in. Will the new ruler be fair, dignified and peaceable, or will they court controversy, spend extravagantly and encroach on our rights? Such a change evokes perfectly natural fears and history is awash with examples of heirs to the throne who were considered weak or even downright hated. Much of the time, however, they turned out to be perfectly adequate, even pretty good Kings and Queens.
Transferring from its critically acclaimed run at the Almeida theatre, Charles III leaps forward about 10 years to the death of our present Queen and the moment where Prince Charles ascends to the British throne. Immediately Charles, a thoughtful man with integrity, decides to withhold his signature from a bill ensuring privacy from media intrusion. His reasons are sensible but his interference in the constitutional process leads to a showdown with the Prime Minister and serious consequences for the fragile new state.
One of the most interesting aspects of this play is the use of blank verse which gives it a grand and almost timeless Shakespearean feel. Had it used more modern speech it could easily have felt trite and soap-opera like. Instead what you get is a serious comedy drama touching on some universal themes about the nature of power and the limitations of constitutional monarchy. Even the notion of a King providing an advisory check and balance to the temporary authority of elected politicians is called into questioned when that theoretical sway is used to halt a democratic process. To what extent then should the honour of a King, even with the intention of doing good, be used to obviate Parliamentary decisions?
The role of Charles is an interesting one here and happily the play is quite balanced in its presentation of him. While you may not agree with what he’s doing he is a man of integrity and genuinely believes that what he is doing will be to the advantage of the law being created; the refusal to sign is to encourage the government to think more carefully about its proposal rather than an attempt to overthrow the democratic process. However as the play progresses and Charles digs his heels in, his willingness to compromise is lost and his temper leads to some poor decision-making. I loved the subtle references to the personal rule of Charles I and that hint at the historic precedents for monarchs clashing with Parliaments down the ages came across really well.
Although Tim Piggott-Smith didn’t perform on the day I saw it, his understudy was very good and the show didn’t suffer for the absence of its star. It is becoming common for leads not to do the matinees, which is annoying for people paying the high prices and it ought to be noted on the website. In this case it wasn’t so it may well just have been illness on the day. The surrounding cast is very good too, especially Adam James as the much harassed Prime Minister and Nicholas Rowe as the somewhat two-faced leader of the opposition, privately supporting the King but publically disowning him. Envisaging Kate as a Lady Macbeth figure, manipulating events and effortlessly controlling both the family and the public is one of the highlights of the show.
It’s not entirely perfect and the subplot involving Harry wanting to leave the family to be with a deeply irritating pro-republic student lacks any credibility and the performances are pretty flat. Of course the plot is driven by the stark differences between the ruling styles of Charles and his mother, but I couldn’t help being slightly frustrated by the fairly clichéd assumption that Charles would be a bad King. For a man who’s spent the best part of 70 years watching an arguably successful reign it seemed unlikely that he would upset the apple cart so early in his own rule. There are many examples of Princes of Wales whose accession were feared – George IV as Prince Regent was loathed and Queen Victoria’s heir (later Edward VII) was considered profligate – but they ruled unchallenged. There is balance in Charles III however and we see that an essentially decent person doesn’t always make an effective King. It’s a fascinating exploration of the British democratic process and where power actually lies in our constitution. See it if you can.
Charles III is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 31st January and tickets start at £20.