Bri­tish play­wright Mike Bartlett imag­ines Charles as an ac­tivist sov­er­eign who rewrites the rules by which the monar­chy op­er­ates, says Matthew West­wood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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


Mike Bartlett is not quite ready to de­clare him­self a repub­li­can

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