Oh dear royalty is at it again! No, not the recent reports of the Duke of Edinburgh rolling his vehicle and then driving round the next day sans seatbelt. Nor the sudden departure of several key staff apparently fed up with the Duchess of Sussex. Not even Danny Dyer tracing his ancestry back to Edward III. This time it’s all about Charles, recently 70 and (seemingly) perpetually a king in waiting. It was actually a play – though a pretty truthful one it seems – as Tower Theatre fired its first broadside in what promises to be a packed 2019 schedule. Here’s my review:
Having opened Tower’s first season in its new venue with Henry V, what better way to begin the 2019 programme than with the tale of another beleaguered monarch? Charles III is the play Shakespeare might have written had he been alive in this century; it was actually penned by Mike Bartlett as what he calls a “future history play”. Premiered in 2014, some aspects (notably the introduction of Meghan Markle into the mix) have changed but much remains constant.
The play focuses on events immediately following the death of Queen Elizabeth. The Duke of Edinburgh has already passed away “sometime earlier” (hopefully not in a transportation accident!) and so Prince Charles assumes the reins of monarchy – a position he has coveted and been waiting for decades to take on. Whether it is plain cussedness or a sudden rush of power to the head he takes issue with the government’s latest Parliamentary bill on press intrusion and refuses to give the royal assent. This has not happened since the reign of Queen Anne and although technically a matter of form and precedent his refusal is enough to spark a constitutional crisis. Each side digs in their heels and Charles, in particular, refuses to compromise his personal principles. The inevitable slide into personal and public tragedy begins.
The protagonist’s hubris is all very Shakespearean and this homage to the Bard is further enhanced by a ghostly warning figure (Hamlet), a son rebelling against his royal status (Henry IV), a conniving wife (Macbeth), a baying mob (Julius Caesar/Coriolanus) and thoughts of deposition (Richard II). Most obviously though Bartlett has written the whole piece in blank verse – a brave move which intelligently supports the structure and content of the play; these are, after all, high flown matters of state.
The execution of the dialogue by the sixteen strong cast was very well done and sounded, as it should, heightened and yet naturalistic at the same time. In the hands of Martin South, Charles’ soliloquies were expertly put over and drew the audience in, working particularly well in the intimate space which is the Tower auditorium. I have seen (and worked with) Martin in several productions and I think it is fair to say that I have never seen him stronger. He inhabited Charles fully, introducing subtle mannerisms and inflexions into his voice, avoiding full on Spitting Image caricature (apart from one glorious and appropriate little touch) and showing us the troubled man behind the royal façade. His is truly an interpretation to treasure.
And the rest of the cast weren’t far behind him either. Jo Nevin as Camilla was tight lipped with repressed fury as events unfolded. Dan Draper and Helen McGill fully captured the apparent demeanour of the Cambridges. I say “apparent” because this take on Kate reveals unexpected hidden depths which Helen seized with both hands to give us an unexpected and refreshing portrayal. Dan, having recently played Henry V for Tower, must be used to portraying royalty but he seemed equally at home here as the young man caught between duty to his country and his father. The other young royal, Harry, received a very sympathetic portrayal from Ben Grafton and his poignant resignation to his preordained calling rather than his personal inclinations was very moving. I found it fascinating that Bartlett rightly predicted the prince’s move from irresponsible playboy to full member of the royal “firm” several years ago.
Outside the royal family members portrayed, I was particularly taken with Jess Hammett’s Prime Minister. Her speaking of the text and her diction were extremely strong and her character clearly defined right from her very first entrance. Perhaps she could sort out Brexit next! Matching her in eloquence, though clearly far more overtly personally political, was Robert Orchard’s somewhat oleaginous Leader of The Opposition; I suspect his day job will have provided him with much cannon fodder. Alistair Maydon brought a delightfully world weary pragmatism to his role as double-crossing Press Secretary, James Reiss. Straddling both worlds, or at least trying to, the Jess of Sal Fulcher brought a breath of fresh air to proceedings.
Action was kept fluid with a minimum of furniture and props and the use of a composite set by Max Batty (everything from Westminster Abbey to a kebab shop) meant that the pace never flagged. The dominant portrait of the current Queen keeping a watch over proceedings and with eyes that (literally) moved around the room was a stroke of genius. Rob Hebblethwaite’s atmospheric lighting also ensured that various locations were clearly delineated. Kathleen Morrison had sourced some excellent costumes – including a tremendous crown – and had obviously spent a good deal of time on ceremonial frogging, epaulettes and such like.
Ruth Sullivan’s excellent direction, soundscape (put together with Laurence Tuerk) and her exceptionally good eye for detail were well to the fore. I particularly appreciated the way the opening of each half had been mounted. Entering the auditorium as the Queen’s funeral was in progress was a very clever way to start things off. And a word of praise here for local Stoke Newington group The Boiler House Singers and composer Tara Crème for creating an appropriate mood and a sense of occasion as the audience took its seats. Similarly the second half opening was a riot of colour and noise as the ensemble played out the growing discontent of the mob with their Stomp! inspired routine.
I missed the original stage production of the play, though I did see the TV version, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much meatier and robust this piece was than I recall it being. Far from the usual soap opera portrayal of the royal family trotted out by the popular press, here was a solid and even soaring evening that addressed big issues around loyalty, partisanship, individual and collective will and the absolute need for compromise. I’m sure there’s a strong political message for our current circumstances here – now, if I could only work out what that was!
Charles III has got the year off to a cracking start for Tower Theatre. Strongly written, strongly cast, strongly played and strongly directed the whole company can be justifiably proud of a first class piece of play making. And if this is the standard being set then roll on the rest of 2019!
And it looks like I’m going to be part of maintaining (lowering?) that standard as I’ve just found out I’ve been cast as Falstaff in the Tower production of The Merry Wives of Windsor being performed in both London and Paris – Brexit permitting presumably!