Mike Bartlett has stepped into the future and produced a remarkable play about what might happen when the Queen dies and Charles becomes King. He has invented what on paper may seem a slightly implausible premise but which on stage appears utterly credible, and given it in scope, reach and language the full Shakespeare treatment.
The play begins with the Agnus Dei and the death of the Queen, and before he’s even managed to get himself crowned Charles is refusing to sign off on a Bill restricting the freedom of the press, on grounds of principle. The result is a constitutional crisis, a tank outside Buckingham Palace and threatened civil war, not to mention tension and treachery within the Firm itself.
It’s a bold, brave and beautiful play, cast, directed and acted to perfection. I’m not kidding. Each member of the Firm is instantly recognisable the moment he or she steps onto the stage – Charles, Camilla, William, Kate and a wonderfully tousled Harry – yet while none of the actors attempts anything like an impression of the famous character they are playing they are all utterly believable. The heightened language could so easily have sounded portentous, yet it doesn’t, it adds grandeur and stature to a play that, though speculative, makes a lot of sense and with great intelligence and integrity throws a light on the whole purpose of the Royal Family and the fact that, ironically, the only person not allowed to voice his political opinions in public is the monarch. At one point Charles, in anguish, cries ‘Who am I?’ – if he is not allowed to act on his principles, what is the point of him?
There are echoes of Hamlet and Macbeth, with the ghostly appearance of Diana, and Henry IV, with the heartbreakingly lost Harry trying so hard to extricate himself from the constraints of the family he is born into, and yet… but I don’t want to give that away. There’s even a touch of Richard II about a desperate, thwarted Charles poring over books in search of royal precedent and and declaring ‘the king is ordained by God’.
Above all else is a towering performance by the great Tim Piggott-Smith, a humane, sympathetic yet finally out of control Charles (who in reality I suspect would not find it so easy to express his genuine love for his sons). The director is Rupert Goold. A great play for our times.