This play is absolutely riveting … and alarmingly treasonable. It’s fascinating, thought-provoking and one of the cleverest plays I’ve seen in years. But it does leave a bitter taste and I yearned for a member of the real Royal family to leap up on stage to defend ‘The Firm’. “I can assure you, my subjects, it will never be like this.”
Mike Bartlett’s audacious script charts an unlikely chain of events following the demise of our long reigning Monarch. The Queen is dead. Long live Robert Powell ! He is simply magisterial as King Charles the Third. There is no hint of parody in his performance; he just uses his natural bearing and presence to present a man who’s bided his time for 70 years.
Bartlett gives him some great lines to express his bittersweet wait for accession. Pouring the tea Charles asks, “Shall I be mother?” and bemoans the absence of a helicopter accident to hasten his promotion.
The plot revolves around the Government’s latest parliamentary bill to curb press freedom. Considering what happened to Diana, you’d have thought Charles would be all for it. But he wants to prove he’s more than just a well-primed fountain pen pusher. Suddenly the defender of the faith becomes the defender of the hacks. Paramount in his mind, he says, is ‘freedom of speech’ and, for the first time since 1708, the Monarch refuses to Sign. Cue a convoluted constitutional crisis.
What is not clear is his secret agenda. Is he trying to make a huge mark on British history or engineer his own abolition? Or both?
We meet the rest of the family…and as each character is introduced there is warm laughter from the audience as they see the similarity. Carrot top Harry (Richard Glaves) is a brilliant wayward son who’s hooked up with a commoner (Jess, played by Lucy Phelps) who broadens his education by showing him his first tube station and taking him to Sainsbury’s to buy a Scotch egg.
Ben Righton’s suave William is charmingly devious in his quest to right the Royal ship. But the real stunner is Jennifer Bryden’s Kate, who is so convincingly elegant her singular use of the “F” word brings gasps. For me, she is the puppeteer of the piece, pulling her husband’s strings like Lady Macbeth.
And at this point I should reveal that this is the history play that Shakespeare never wrote.
It’s a brilliant device. Bartlett has written the whole show as if it were The Bard’s missing masterpiece, doing what Will never did by writing the history of the future; hence the title. The entire play is written in Shakespearian style with iambic pentameters and rhyming couplets for those in power, and common speech for the ‘tavern scenes’. It’s a brave decision which works wonders…the archaic patterns of speech separating us from reality just enough to make the harsh contents digestible. For all is far from sweetness and light…and Bartlett is not bothered about fair do’s.
The Shakespearian themes run deep. There are modern interpretations of key moments from Hamlet, Richard the Second, The Scottish Play and half the Henrys.
Once you’ve twigged, it’s a private pleasure spotting them all. There’s even a daring version of Banquo’s ghost, who floats in to predict that both Charles and William will be ‘the greatest king of all’. Ride the shock and listen to her carefully, it’s a key clue.
Mike Bartlett and his director Rupert Goold have created an alternative but clearly recognisable near-future Britain, shorn of stability and desperate to restore itself after losing its leader. Labour are in power, led by a youthful, ruthless but reasonable Neil Kinnock-like Prime Minister, played by Tim Treloar; whilst Giles Taylor playing the leader of the Tory opposition reminded me of a smarmy Cecil Parkinson. Neither party is given any grace by the author.
And there’s a wonderful Prince and The Pauper scene when Harry stumbles into a kebab shop (rather than a tavern) and is inspired by an astute vendor who wields his knives to illustrate how Britain has been cut to the bone. Clever stuff.
Everyone wears black (as if to send up our present obsession with minimal, modern dress Shakespeare) and the central issue of gagging the press seems already outmoded, bearing in mind the impossibility of gagging social media. The play doesn’t fight shy of contrivance and takes its time to tell its tale. But all is forgiven. It’s a brilliant piece, which should be seen by everyone ….. except, perhaps, members of the Royal Family.
Visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk for information about Birmingham Rep.