The Almeida Theater’s debut production of Mike Bartlett’s King Charles closes soon, but, as an example of the golden age of theater writing in London, I simply must review it despite missing the best window for doing so.
Taking a philosophical question and putting it in as the core element of a work of fiction is a fantastic way of approaching “what ifs.” In some ways, it’s the motivation behind the writing of Animal Farm and of Fahrenheit 451 … for others, it’s the essence of a dry bit of writing like The Communist Manifesto or God knows how many dreary PhD publications. Forget essays, let’s look at changes to the underpinnings of concepts of personhood and politics through the eyes of theater!
This seems to be the driving force behind Mike Bartlett’s new play, King Charles. The idea is that the new king (former prince), Charles, has decided to change the balance of powers between the executive and the legislative branch; rather than rubberstamping every bill that comes his way, he’s going to use … the veto! Now, as an expert on American constitutional government, I didn’t find this shocking at all; but apparently saying no hasn’t been on the agenda for all of Elizabeth’s long reign. The so-called executive is supposed to smile and nod and say yes to anything that comes out of parliament; a situation that rather effectively destroys any sense of “balance” between these two bodies.
My mind raced madly at the ideas this raised (and Charles’ mini-furore over likening Putin to Hitler – a similarity I certainly noticed, what with the takeover of a free nation’s territory – showed that the expectation is that royalty are truly only expected to be FIGURE heads of state). What are the traditional rights of the executive role? Is this country wrongly goverened because there is no effective balance to the legistlature? What’s the point of a prime minister, anyway?
I had feared that this play would be some kind of celebrity, jokey-jokey “oh look it’s Camilla oh look it’s, um, whatever his name is, the younger brother” but instead Bartlett took the opportunity to create beautiful language (it sounded very iambic, someone send me a script!) and to flesh out gorgeous, rich characters very much “inspired by” a la Shakespeare. (I’m pretty sure no Scottish lord of any sort has ever referred to his family as “all my pretty chickens,” but it still makes for better listening.) And all of this was underpinned by Bartlett’s wonderful understanding of human motivations … especially the selfish ones.
Backed by the beautiful uncertaining of our soon to be glorious future, this play had a brilliant edge to it, like a knife sitting in silk, ready to tear. I was eager to rush back in after the intermission and see how it had all turned out. Oh brave Almeida, that has such fine plays in ‘t!
(This review is for a performance that took place on May 9th, 2014. It ends May 31st.)