This highly topical play by Mike Bartlett is set in a not-so-distant future. Queen Elizabeth II has passed away after reigning for seven decades, and her son Charles ascends to the throne for which he has been in waiting for so many years. However being a very different type of person to his mother, he quickly makes decisions which shake the very foundations of freedom and democracy.
This has been done before, of course, notably in the second part of the House of Cards trilogy, but never before with the real Royal names and faces implicated.
In a scene where a Charles in full military regalia storms into the House of Commons and dissolves Parliament, there are of course parallels with that earlier autocratic monarch and namesake, Charles I, while William and Catherine are presented very much as the scheming Macbeths, with Kate taking the initiative to topple the very fabric of tradition – even in the opening scenes she is querying the right of monarch to reign in advance of the Coronation.
This is all fantasy, of course, down to Harry finding love with a girl from a council estate and seeking to put aside his Royal title, and to appearances from the ghost of Charles’ first wife Diana. The play is written, cleverly, in blank verse, which means it steps back to the time of Shakespeare where the Right of Kings perhaps meant more than the ceremonial significance of the role does now.
The Royal Prerogative of refusing Assent to a Bill passed by the Houses of Parliament has not been acted upon since the days of Queen Victoria, and this play playfully surmises what might happen should a King fail to sign a piece of legislation – in this case a Bill affecting the freedom of the press. In this future universe, Labour is in power but with a PM called Tristan, while the Conservative Leader of the Opposition is a slippery figure, not to be trusted.
As a spectacle, this play is a winner, from the choral opening with candles, through to cast members resembling their real-life counterparts just enough for us to feel on familiar ground, yet with personalities that are very different. At times the play does verge on the cruel – I can’t imagine Kate bullying her father-in-law into abdication, or Charles to rant at William that he reminds him of the worst of Diana.
There have been casting changes, too, necessitated by Tim Pigott-Smith’s recent car accident, and so his understudy, Miles Richardson, now appears as Charles. At a distance he has a slight resemblance to impressionist Alistair McGowan, which is a little distracting, but he does well enough, although reviewers who have seen both actors state that Richardson’s interpretation is weaker and less brought down by his pride. Margot Leicester is Camilla, funny and tough, while Oliver Chris and Lydia Wilson look the part as William and Kate, as does Richard Goulding as Harry. Adam James is the PM, Nicholas Rowe is the Opposition Leader, and Jess the Republican representing the common people is Tafline Steen.
If we could have a world where there is a tank in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, where a press conference can be hijacked by a Prince in waiting, and where an abdication could be forced within weeks – this play does give food for thought. I also liked how Harry initially does not speak in blank verse until well into the play, which makes him seem more of an outsider, and the second act opener where a man in a Charles mask is hounded by the mob – just in case we have forgotten who the subject of this play is meant to be.