King Charles III, by Mike Bartlett | Directed by Rupert Goold

Almeida Theatre & Sydney Theatre Company | Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay, Sydney | Until 30 April

Some of the best stories come from the ‘What if …?’ school of plot generation:

What if a posh professor tried to turn a street urchin into a lady?

What if two teenagers from warring families fell in love?

 What if a young girl fell down a rabbit hole?

This play asks a ‘what if’ that isn’t so far fetched: What if Prince Charles became king? Would he use the now-largely-ignored powers of the role to interfere in matters of state? If so, what if he used that power to interrupt the workings of the democratically elected government?

In King Charles III, he refuses to rubber stamp a bill designed to restrict freedoms of the press, specifically where the government is concerned. The repercussions are damaging to both the royal family and the nation.

Is Charles being his usual batty self by refusing to sign? Or is he reacting to his life-long wait for the crown by overstepping his boundaries? Or is there actually a need for an intervening hand when the government oversteps ITS boundaries?

At its core, the play is asking: What is the role of the modern monarchy?

On the morning of seeing the play, I was chatting with a receptionist about politics. He is a Millennial – twenty-five years old – and was of the opinion that the blurring lines between the major parties in both the US and Australia are making the political system as we know it outmoded and unable to function to benefit society. “We need a benevolent dictator,” he assured me, “to get us back on track.”

That conversation echoed in my mind throughout the play. Could Charles, with his fair and enlightened ideas, actually be the “benevolent dictator” the Millennials want? Someone to keep corporation-bought governments from continuing to sell us down the river? Is standing up for freedom the press so terribly bad? Or must we safeguard democracy at all costs, even though it’s losing its way?

How fitting that such themes are written as a tragicomedy in Shakespearean iambic pentameter. Playwright Mike Bartlett admits that “this was terrifying”, but it was a great move.

Imbuing the characters with the cadence we have come to associate with Shakespeare’s more stately and often tragic characters immediately places them within a historical context and lineage, despite their modern look and contemporary phrases.

Of course, this can sharpen the comedy as well, such as Camilla’s reference to William and Catherine as “the king and queen of column inches”.

It’s only when Harry (Richard Glaves) is with his working-class girlfriend that prose is used. Poor Harry. His two-dimensional character seems to have only two functions: as link between the royals and the plebs, and as running ginger joke.

Interestingly, commoner Catherine comes across as the most royal of all the characters, a fact that William recognises and explicitly states. I found it disappointing that the main female characters were reduced to Camilla (Carolyn Pickles) as ‘the dowager’ and Catherine as ‘the Lady Macbeth’, both standing resolutely behind their royal men and pushing when required. Only Harry’s young girlfriend Jess (Lucy Phelps) defies female tropes.

Even Diana was cast as a standard conceit: ‘the tragic heroine’. It is a little ridiculous, though, to see the ghost of such a thoroughly modern icon wandering the stage as a tragic and typically Shakespearean ghost. The juxtaposition elicited laughs from this Antipodean audience that perhaps did not reflect British reactions.

The English cast are superb. They were directed to play the words first then, towards the end of rehearsal, to introduce the real-life mannerisms of their characters. This has worked exceptionally well in preventing the play from degenerating into a morass of impersonations.

There is only a hint of Charles’ very distinctive manner of speech in Robert Powell’s delivery, making the character more a man and less the caricature that, in 70-odd years, we have become accustomed to write off as an ineffectual buffoon.

Jennifer Bryden and Ben Righton create realistically plastic Kate and William. Similarly, Tim Treloar and Giles Taylor nicely marry political ideology with believable characterisation as Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition.

Whether monarchist or republican, King Charles III is worth your time and will leave you wondering about your position in the debate.



Above: Robert Powell and Tim Treloar.

Below: Jennifer Bryden and Carolyn Pickles.

Images: Prudence Upton

Above: Lucy Phelps and Richard Glaves.

Below: Ben Righton and Jennifer Bryden.

Images: Richard Hubert Smith