King Charles Deferred

King Charles III, Theatre Royal, Bath, Saturday 28th November 2015

King Charles III was a mess from start to finish, and the reason for its failure is almost purely down to the script.

The tone veered with the wildness of an emotionally unpredictable drunk from clowning farce, through dark political intrigue, to Shakespearean tragedy. As if the writers of Mrs. Brown’s Boys, House of Cards and the Bard himself had been locked in a room for a week and forced to write something together in exchange for food.

With a few exceptions, the humour was forced. The attempt to demonstrate edginess early on with a sexual assault gag joke (Prince Harry, dressed as a commoner, looks like he has been “raped by Primark”) established a low-water mark of comedic quality which the rest of the play rarely surpassed.

The characterisation was flimsy. The characters were either one-dimensional – the scheming Duchess of Cambridge, with William a vacuous vehicle for her ambition – or incoherent. Charles is at once devoted to the notion of service and utterly self-obsessed at the same time, both an active political player and a passive observer of events he cannot control and a world he no longer understands. This is not a complex, conflicted character – it’s an outline that needs serious refinement.

The real pity is that the central premise of the play is so ripe for dramatic exploration. What happens if the current Prince Charles finally ascends to the throne but cannot curb his desire to speak out on political issues, thus forcing a constitutional crisis? This is not some abstract idea. It is a scenario that could come true in the not-too-distant future (with all respect, Ma’am).

Instead of engaging with this idea, the drama disappears into the various sub-plots surrounding the William and Harry and their partners, as well as utterly extraneous Shakespearean allusions. Diana as Hamet’s ghost? The Duchess of Cambridge as Lady Macbeth. Briefly amusing, but ultimately pointless.

In contrast, Billington found the Shakespearean elements “crucial” to the understanding of the play and the quandaries facing the monarchy in the modern age. He’s clearly not alone in his appreciation of the play, which transferred to Broadway and won a host of awards after its premiere run.

Billington includes the play as 101st in the list, the newest of the lot, the only one written by someone younger than me, and describes it as richly intriguing.

We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. This was an audience with the King I hope to never repeat.

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