King Charles III

Roslyn Packer Theatre, April 2

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Robert Powell as Charles and Tim Treloar as the Prime Minister, Mr Evans. Photo: Prudence Upton

Queen Elizabeth II is dead. Long live King Charles III – or maybe not.

Unlike the Queen, who never meddled in affairs of State, Charles hasn’t even made it to his coronation when he astonishes the Prime Minister by refusing to sign a bill restricting the freedom of the press. With neither Charles nor Parliament prepared to budge, a constitutional crisis looms. Before long there’s unrest on the street and a tank parked outside Buckingham Palace.

So begins Mike Bartlett’s fascinating play 2014 King Charles III. Directed by Rupert Goold for London’s Almeida Theatre, it has had hugely successful seasons in the West End and on Broadway. Now a British company led by Robert Powell as Charles, which has been touring the play around the UK, is in Sydney with a finely honed production.

Set in the near future, King Charles III has the ring of one of Shakespeare’s history plays with Charles as a tragic figure: a principled man with a conscience but also a yen to hold more sway than a mere figurehead.

The Duchess of Cambridge, meanwhile, is well aware of the monarchy as a brand, its strength measured in column inches.

There are numerous Shakespearean echoes through the play with references to Lear, Henry IV, Macbeth Richard II and Hamlet. Bartlett has even written most of it in blank verse (apart from scenes featuring Prince Harry and his commoner girlfriend Jess, a Republican arts student from a working class background) using the iambic pentameter as Shakespeare did.

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Lucy Phelps as Jess and Rupert Glaves as Prince Harry. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

It’s a clever, daring concept, which Bartlett has pulled off with considerable skill and wit. The language is actually very accessible, so much so you almost forget that it’s verse at times, while the inclusion of contemporary words and phrases is often very funny.

Though there’s certainly a comic frisson in first meeting the Royal characters – Charles, Camilla, William, Kate, Harry and a certain family ghost proffering conflicting prophecies – the play is by no means a parody. The characters are presented as real and Bartlett canvasses serious issues regarding the role and value (if any) of the Royal Family, the power of the media, and the impact of a rapidly changing society on the mindset of its people.

However, a small section of the opening night audience seemed determined to see the play in superficial terms and laugh at everything, upsetting the rhythm and tension of certain scenes.

What the play doesn’t generate is a great deal of emotional connection. Charles’ fate is unexpectedly moving and Harry’s misgivings and confusion about his role in life are touchingly understandable but mostly it’s a cerebral affair.

Designer Tom Scutt sets the action on a raised dais surrounded by a bare brick wall with darkened doors and a frieze of blurry faces suggesting the populace beyond the palace walls. Using minimal props, Goold stages the action with elegant simplicity. Stylised touches such as the choral singing and the use of Guy Fawkes masks in a street riot are strikingly effective. Only the scenes with the ghost feel unconvincingly staged.

Jocelyn Pook’s score adds plenty of atmosphere, and captures a sense of past and present with music ranging from the opening Requiem to pulsing minimalist chords.

Powell is marvellous as Charles, portraying a dignified but conflicted man driven by an uneasy mix of idealism and frustration after his long wait to become king. As the play unfolds, he also displays a slightly manic attachment to the power of the monarch, while his sense of betrayal is keenly felt.

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Robert Powell as Charles with Ben Righton and Jennifer Bryden as Will and Kate. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Jennifer Bryden and Ben Righton do a wonderful job of capturing the clean-cut, photogenic glamour of Kate and Will, before revealing a steely strategic nous.

In a comic sub-plot reminiscent of Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I, Harry is portrayed as a disconsolate, troubled figure unsure of his role in life. Dressed in hoodie and jeans, Rupert Glaves conveys a surly passion and vulnerability as he contemplates life with a commoner, rather than the affable ease that the real ginger-headed Prince projects, while Lucy Phelps is a spirited Jess.

Carolyn Pickles is very funny as Camilla, urging her man to stand firm while displaying little understanding of what is unfolding. Tim Treloar is excellent as the Welsh Prime Minister, who is not a million miles from former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, while Giles Taylor exudes a born-to-the-manor confidence as the Tory opposition leader.

King Charles III is excitingly adventurous theatre in the way is plays with form. It also ignites healthy debate. With the Republican issue still unresolved in Australia, the foyer was full of heated discussions afterwards.

King Charles III plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until April 30. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 10

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Buckingham Palace drama is no fringe show

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Robert Powell as Charles with Ben Righton and Jennifer Bryden as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in King Charles III. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

To cut or not to cut a fringe? Without being too superficial about it, you can’t play the Duchess of Cambridge – Kate Middleton as was –without taking her lustrous locks into account, even if you aren’t attempting an impersonation.

“It’s amazing really to make the front cover of most newspapers just for the very fact that you’ve had a hair cut. When her fringe was cut (in September) suddenly that was massive news,” says Jennifer Bryden who plays Kate in King Charles III, the phenomenally popular, award-winning play by British playwright Mike Bartlett.

In fact, Bryden won’t be sporting bangs when the British production arrives at Sydney Theatre Company later this month.

“I wanted to. I angled for it but because we weren’t doing impersonations they felt that actually having long dark hair was enough. So I’ve kept mine long and we put it in hot rollers,” she says.

Ben Righton who plays William has a much healthier head of hair than the Duke of Cambridge with his receding thatch.

“He was slightly dreading the fact that they were going to suggest shaving a bald patch,” says Bryden with a laugh.

King Charles III premiered at London’s 325-seat Almeida Theatre in 2014. Directed by Rupert Goold, it quickly became the hottest ticket in town and transferred to the West End. When a Broadway season was confirmed, a second company was formed to take the play on a UK tour. Led by Robert Powell as Charles, that company is en route to Sydney.

Described as “a future history play”, Queen Elizabeth II is dead and Charles finally ascends the throne, Camilla at his side. But when he refuses to sign a bill restricting the freedom of the press, he triggers a constitutional storm. With civil war brewing, there are suddenly tanks outside Buckingham Palace.

Praised by New York critics as “flat-out brilliant” and “breathtakingly audacious”, Bartlett’s Buckingham Palace drama about a monarchy in crisis is written in iambic pentameter, giving the play a Shakespearean feel infused with a dash of Fleet Street.

Righton says he was “blown away” when he read the script. “That kind of writing does a lot of the work for you because it tells you which words to stress. It forces you into a style of talking. What is brilliant about Mike’s script is it refers to all kinds of modern things but in verse. I love it. It pushes the play along at a wonderful pace,” he says.

Will and Kate are among the most photographed people on earth but both Righton and Bryden decided to focus on the script itself rather than taking a forensic look at the young Royals when preparing for their audition.

“That turned out to be the right decision. Something we were told early on in rehearsals is that this wasn’t about impersonating. We were to approach the text as we would any text and approach the character as we would any other character. And only then, at the end, were we allowed to add suggestions of mannerisms that we had observed in real life,” says Bryden.

“They were never after imitations,” agrees Righton. “It’s like an alternative reality this play, a ‘what if’ Charles were to take the throne.”

Jennifer Bryden and Ben Righton in KCIII Tour. Credit Richard Hubert Smith

Jennifer Bryden and Ben Righton as Kate and Will in King Charles III. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

When it came to observing mannerisms, Righton noted that the Duke of Cambridge speaks in a “breathy” way, fiddles with his hands a lot and often has them in his pockets. “He’s left-handed. I’m right-handed so I’ve had to teach myself to be left-handed,” says the actor.

“If you look at Will for any length of time he’s – I’m trying to find a nice way of putting this – but he’s quite bland. He’s very straightforward and polite and he smiles a lot so there’s not a lot to go on. He’s a blank canvas.

“Because he’s been photographed since he was born you feel you know so much about him but you realise that we don’t. They’ve done a very good job of keeping his life private and what makes the bloke tick is very hard to find out anywhere. I know two people who went to school with him and I tried to get them to tell me a bit about him but they were very loyal and haven’t said a word. I can’t get anything out of them,” says Righton.

Bryden believes that the way Kate dresses has a strong influence over the way we perceive her. “I am lucky with the silhouettes of the costumes she wears and the heels. Once I was in costume that really helped.

“It’s amazing what the power of the imagination does,” adds Bryden. “In real life I don’t think any of us look particularly like the members of the Royal Family. There are similar shapes, colourings and heights but that’s about it. But actually once we’ve got the costumes on and the characters are introduced in the first scene, the power of the imagination lies with the audience to see the person they are used to seeing in the public eye.”

Beneath the fashionable outfits and flowing hair, there’s a backbone to Bartlett’s Kate that comes as a surprise. Portrayed as a shrewd political operator, who supports and motivates William, she has been compared to Lady Macbeth.

“She definitely wears the royal trousers…. In our play she’s a very commanding figure,” says Righton with a chuckle.

Careful not to give too much away, Bryden says: “She is the key operator, the person who makes the changes in the action of the play. She’s the one person within the Royal Family who can look at what’s going on objectively because everyone else is too tied up with their own family drama. Because Kate is new to all this, she is the one with the outside eye.”

Before she had any idea that she would be auditioning for the play, Bryden saw King Charles III in the West End from a seat in the gods with a friend of hers.

“It was so fascinating in the interval hearing all the discussions. So often everyone just makes and a beeline for the bar and it’s about what they’ve been doing that day. Here, everyone was talking (about the play), whether it was politics or family or actors playing real people or the monarchy. It was amazing. My friend said, ‘you should play that part one day,'” says Bryden.

None of the Royal Family has been to see the play. However, Tim Piggott-Smith who played Charles in the original production, received a letter from a member of the staff at Clarence House, Charles’s official London residence, pointing out that Charles doesn’t wear a wedding ring.

“I think everyone has taken that as a bit of a nod that they’re watching and hopefully approve,” says Bryden.“I’m sure they know all about it but I don’t think they would ever come and see it.”

King Charles III, Roslyn Packer Theatre, March 31 – April 30. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 13