British playwright Mike Bartlett imagines Charles as an activist sovereign who rewrites the rules by which the monarchy operates, says Matthew Westwood
Australians are still in two minds about replacing an unelected British monarch with a homegrown president as our head of state. Last Australia Day, Malcolm Turnbull resisted calls from Labor and state premiers to get cracking with a fresh referendum on the issue. The nation isn’t ready, our republican PM declared, and a recent Newspoll seems to back that assessment. Support for an Australian republic stands at just 51 per cent, although the figure rises to 55 per cent at the prospect of having Prince Charles as our king.
The electorate could not be better primed, then, for a new play about such a scenario. King Charles III is a hugely entertaining and politically engaging drama that imagines the day the Queen departs her earthly realm and Charles accedes to the throne.
The author of this speculative drama, British playwright Mike Bartlett, is happy to learn the republic versus monarchy question has again been a topic of public debate. “The issues of the monarchy are so loaded in Australia, it seems to me — for really good, valid historical reasons, and very contemporary reasons — so it will be fascinating if it has an impact on how the audience sees the play,” he says.
King Charles III opened in London in April 2014 and was an instant hit with audiences and critics. It won the 2015 Olivier award for best new play.
Bartlett has created a modern version of the Shakespeare history play: a dramatic portrait of a king confronting the deepest questions of state, his authority under attack from parliament, the public and even from within his family. Within days of the Queen’s death, Charles triggers a political crisis that will have both republicans and monarchists in the audience asking themselves which course of action is right. Bartlett proposes a fascinating question about a system of government at whose apex is a highly visible but otherwise politically passive royal figurehead: What happens if the king says “no”?
Apart from crafting a fast-moving political drama (on paper at least: this writer has read the play, not seen it), Bartlett has mixed in elements of observational comedy and royal soap opera. Camilla is there, of course, as the newly elevated queen consort. Harry the playboy prince gets the girl and some impertinent questions about his paternity. Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, betrays her commoner origins, and the ghost of Diana, princess of Wales, haunts the palace.
Another novelty is that Bartlett has written King Charles III almost entirely in blank verse: not as flowery Elizabethan pastiche but in contemporary language with the unmistakeable speech rhythms of theatrical kings and princes. The premiere at London’s Almeida Theatre, directed by Rupert Goold, earned a five-star review in The Times, with Dominic Maxwell describing an “intelligent, empathetic, moving look at the power and limitations of the modern monarchy”. The production transferred to the West End, and has recently finished a Broadway run. Sydney Theatre Company is bringing Goold’s production to Australia for an exclusive Sydney season.
Bartlett, 35, has been enjoying phenomenal success as writer for stage and screen. He came to notice in 2007 with a play about a custody battle, called My Child, at the Royal Court. He doesn’t baulk at contentious topics: his original work includes Earthquakes in London (about climate change), 13 (the protest movement) and Cock (not about roosters). His television series Doctor Foster — about a GP who discovers her husband is having an affair — was so popular last year that a second series has been commissioned.
For some time he had been thinking of writing a play about the royal family, but hadn’t struck upon the right form or subject. He was motivated, in part, by the arguments in his own mind about the monarchy: the rational part of him that would have nothing to do with a “privileged”, “anti-democratic” system of government, and the emotional side that likes to watch the Queen’s Christmas message with his mum.
“My heart would be really sorry to lose them,” he says of the House of Windsor, “because it’s part of my cultural identity and my national identity … I often write plays from a point of contradiction or confusion within myself. I think that’s a good place to start.”
He also identified dramatically useful inconsistencies in Charles’s character, or at least in the prince’s public persona. He is, on the one hand, the personification of hereditary privilege, wealth and power: the heir to the British throne. On the other, he has emerged as chief flagwaver for what these days are sometimes depicted as progressive causes, such as environmental protection and sustainable agriculture.
“You get the sense that he is interested in progressive political change, the way he wants things to progress,” Bartlett says. “And because he’s waited his whole life, he’s got to do something. This play is about what happens when that interest is given the crown.” Bartlett does not keep the new king waiting. No sooner has the Queen been laid to rest than Charles is meeting the Labour prime minister to discuss bills before parliament. The one that most concerns him is a privacy bill that would restrict press freedom: it has already passed the House of Commons and has popular support. But Charles sees the legislation as an attempt to muzzle the watchdog of public accountability. Who polices the police, he asks: “Who holds / Those institutions to account that claim / To be our guardians and serve us well?”
Things get going when Charles, confronted with an unyielding parliament, uses the power invested in him as sovereign to break the deadlock. But why did Bartlett decide on press freedom as the plot trigger for his play? He was motivated, in part, by the phone hacking scandal that engulfed parts of the British media and the demands that such abuses be curbed. But it was also important for dramaturgical purposes that Bartlett choose an issue on which Charles’s response is not the one audiences may expect.
Charles, the real-life prince, has been exposed to media scrutiny in the most painful and embarrassing circumstances (remember tampongate?). You’d think he’d want to stop those prying, intrusive newspapers once and for all. But Bartlett shows Charles taking a more enlightened, longer-term view of public policy, where legislative restrictions on the press would be to the detriment of society.
“And he finds on principle that he can’t sign this bill,” Bartlett says. “He takes a position that is the opposite from what you would expect, after all the things that have happened in his life, the contempt with which he is often talked about in the press …
“It’s very important that the audience go with him on that: we understand it’s against his self-interest, but he doesn’t think it’s the right thing for the country. So whatever your feelings about him personally, he becomes our hero in the play.”
Australians know from recent history that the British monarch, through her representative, can dismiss a government. It hasn’t happened in England since 1834, when William IV sacked the prime minister, Lord Melbourne, and forced an election. British legislation in 2011 circumscribed the monarch’s ability to dissolve parliament, but that has not stopped Bartlett from giving his dramatic imagination full rein. In a stunning scene just before the interval, he has Charles enter parliament with his sceptre, ready to exercise his royal prerogative.
Bartlett says he consulted some legal experts but was more interested in making a compelling drama than in the minutiae of constitutional law. It was a case of him imagining a political impasse — what would happen if the king refused to pass a bill into law? — and seeing where it took him.
“When you do research into these procedures, you realise it isn’t written down, there is no constitution, but it’s all steeped in tradition,” he says. “That’s useful as a dramatist, because it gives you a free hand. Everything that happens in the play is based on the functions of monarchy and parliament, and things that have happened before in different forms. So it’s never too far away from the strange and wonderful system of government we have in the UK.”
His decision to write in blank verse gives the dialogue an appropriate grandeur with echoing footfalls of history, but the language is utterly contemporary. As Charles says in his first soliloquy: “My life has been a ling’ring for the throne.”
Bartlett used iambic pentameter not just to make sport with Shakespeare, but because it
BARTLETT CONCEIVED OF CHARLES AS A SUCCESSOR TO SHAKESPEARE’S KINGS
Mike Bartlett is not quite ready to declare himself a republican