King Charles III


Originally shown at the Almeida in the Spring, Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III has now transferred to Wyndham’s West End theatre. Early reviewing focused on the humour and, if Saturday’s audience is anything to go by, it has stimulated ticket sales. However, even determined laughers were defeated in the second half: this is a dark and serious play. The characters speak blank verse which, to an English audience, subliminally signals Shakespearean themes: power, honour, ambition and loyalty. This medium, powerfully appropriate to depict the real monarchy of late medieval England, might seem overblown for today’s Biedermeier and showbiz version. The triumph of this production is to discover serious themes even in a toothless monarchy, messages which match the medium.

The story is easily outlined: Charles stumbles at the first constitutional hurdle of his reign and is forced to abdicate even before being crowned. Such a synthesis serves the plot scant justice. Charles, hesitant, decent, uneasy even before he has worn the crown, attempts to persuade his prime minister to reconsider a press regulation bill with all-party support. Fatally he overplays his hand first by declining to sign the bill into law, and then – when this has provoked a constitutional crisis – by dissolving Parliament. When Parliament refuses to be dissolved and no general election follows it is the new king who is made to abdicate. The play ends with William and Kate ascending the throne as joint monarchs and royal activism extinguished.

Walter Bagehot’s The English (sic) Constitution (1867) distinguished the dignified and useful parts of the country’s basic law, famously consigning the monarchy to the former. Yet there is no question that the gradually passage of monarchical power to the prime minister – a phenomenon of the long eighteenth century which helped forestall a second English Revolution – has left some grey areas, the ‘reserve powers’ or ‘Royal Prerogative’ of government texts. The Charles of the play (the admirable Tim Pigott-Smith) is fated to dispel the possibility of royal political action and increase the power of the political class – precisely the opposite of his intention. Well-meaning and anxious, he believes his defence of press freedom will rally support, especially since his family were victims of media intrusion. He has confused shadow and substance, not comprehending that the whole point of the Royal Prerogative is that it cannot be used. The whole House wants the press bill and so a new monarch’s views are immaterial. Lacking a legitimate basis to act, he is doomed. Long years anticipating his future role have not equipped him to grasp this overarching political fact. Driven from one failing expedient to another he is finally cornered when it becomes obvious that the very existence of the monarchy is at stake.

In its battle with Charles the political class is represented by two classic specimens. The prime minister is a silky Blairite bully, primly conscious of his dignity and status. The Leader of the (Conservative) Opposition duplicitously encourages Charles in private while solidarising with the prime minister in public. It is no contest. However, it is not their superior skills which defeat Charles but a revolt within the Royal Family. If the nuclear option for politicians is a republic, they can play a lesser card and replace him with his own son and daughter-in-law. This however requires the William of the play to repudiate filial loyalty in the grim closing scenes, ‘there’s son against father’.

The Shakespearean trope was caught even by a Saturday night West End audience. In a marvellous coup de theatre, the deposed Charles intervenes in William’s Abbey ceremony. Taking the crown from the Archbishop, he muses on it before the terrified son who has failed to wait his turn, Hal to Charles’s dying Henry IV; a deposed Richard II teasing an embarrassed Bolingbroke. Charles’s bitter rebuke makes crown itself into metaphor. Splendid to look at, it is empty: ‘turn it this way and there’s nothing there’ he says peering through at William. Which is emptier, the space within the orb or its usurper, a hollow man for a hollow crown?

This scene is elegiac. The decisive moment comes when William breaks ranks, opening a way for monarchy to continue. His Brutus is married not to Portia but to Lady Macbeth. For all her ‘common’ associations, the Kate of the play is an eighteenth century woman, content to enjoy power vicariously; unlike Charles, she understands that the whole thing is just for show. She persuades William that his father’s course threatens the institution itself and with it her own career and that of the infant Prince George. Once he is king she will rule through him and later through her son. The politicians acknowledge her role and formalise it with a joint crowning. We don’t need Shakespeare for this. It is a close parallel to the events of 1688-9 when a runaway James II was deemed to have abdicated. His own daughter and husband were crowned joint monarchs in his place, an event that inaugurated the era of parliamentary supremacy and mythic royal power lasting till our own times.

How prophetic is King Charles III? Unusually we know much of the real Charles’s views on architecture, farming, the environment, hunting and much else besides. Once king he will succeed a long line of dullards who, if they had opinions, rarely uttered them. Britain has not had an intelligent monarch since the death of William III or, arguably, Charles II. Given the degree of popular support and media interest the institution apparently still commands an activist monarch could yet upset the apple-cart. The failure of the British public to grow up politically circumscribes political action. Even Alex Salmond, brave enough to frighten the Westminster establishment, envisages a union of crowns, not a Scottish republic. Britain’s preposterous Royal Family is still a fit subject for serious drama.

Martin Upham, 16 September 2014

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