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Review: King Charles III @ Oxford Playhouse

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub

It has been pronounced by critics and audiences alike, confirmed by hosts of awards, and emphasised by transfers to the West End and Broadway, but it is worth saying once more that Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III is an astonishing play. Imagining the not-so-distant future when the death of Elizabeth II finally pushes the Prince Of Wales onto the throne, it is a grand, sweeping saga that confronts the issue of monarchy in modern Britain head on, leaving one reeling from sheer thought. It is Shakespearean in scope and theme, provocative in form and content, and utterly captivating throughout: a Richard II for the 21st Century.

The Queen Is Dead. Long Live The King. Bartlett presents us with an ageing Charles (Robert Powell) struggling with his new role in the weeks after his mother’s death. Confronted by a Labour Prime Minister (an unapologetically Welsh Tim Treloar) demanding he put the final seal on a new law restricting the freedom of the press, he asks Parliament to reconsider the matter instead. This triggers a conflict between State and Crown over the role of the monarch, which rapidly escalates into a mini-Civil War that takes place across the nation, from Buckingham Palace to a late-night kebab shop.

Battle-lines are drawn. William (Ben Righton) and Kate (Jennifer Bryden) are slowly sucked into the turmoil, as are Harry (Richard Glaves) and his feisty republican girlfriend Jess (Lucy Phelps). Ghosts of Diana (Beatrice Walker) rear their heads, a slippery Leader of the Opposition (Giles Taylor) greases his way around the stage, and a haughty Camilla (Penelope Beaumont) stands unloved by all. Bartlett avoids stereotyping entirely, providing a host of entirely three-dimensional characters, each rich with detail and flooded with their own tangible concerns.

Like Shakespeare, Bartlett alternates between verse and prose, but neither feels remotely incongruous. His dialogue is dazzlingly articulate and his soliloquies profound. Most remarkable of all, however, is how perfectly poised his play is. Every plot twist, every argument and every line fall perfectly into place, creating a deeply resonant piece of theatre that asks important questions in crystal clear fashion.

Every performance is finely calibrated, and the company provide a masterclass in understatement. Powell, taking over the title role from Tim Pigott-Smith for the production’s UK tour, is visibly conflicted beneath his stubborn, yet polite, exterior. Treloar’s stridence hints at the temper raging beneath his politician’s smile, Glaves’ Harry is convincingly lovelorn, and Righton and Bryden supply two beautiful performances as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. He is the upright defender of tradition, she the unpertubed schemer; together they are a formidable team. It is only in the second half, when the political situation deteriorates drastically, with the family itself gradually torn apart, that emotions boil to the surface in a devastating final hour.

One could say much more about Rupert Goold’s production. Essays gushing with praise could be written about his direction, about Tom Scutt’s stark design, Jon Clark’s lighting and Jocelyn Pook’s score. All are superlative, and knit together with a sterling set of performances and a phenomenal script to create theatre that thrills, entertains and challenges all at once. Plays like this do not come around very often. King Charles III is worthy of the highest compliment one is able to give; it is quite simply essential viewing.

5/5

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