When a play explores unimaginable political horrors that could even vaguely have the potential to become a hideous reality it sets the old grey matter exploding into a cacophony of debate and moral wrestling. Mike Bartlett and Rupert Goold’s latest offering does just that. An imagined future wrapped up as a modern classic, written in a blank verse that gives it an air of genuine literary pedigree that would see it sit amongst the best of Shakespeare’s History plays, this is quite simply an extraordinary piece of theatre.
Set in a, lets face it, probably not too distant future Queen Elizabeth has died and Charles has become King, having “loitered” waiting for the throne for far too long. When faced with having to carry out his constitutional duty of signing a new bill that will bind into law the control of the Press Charles embarks on a political roller coaster of a ride. Despite his own dubious relationship with the press Charles wrestles with how controlling them could well mean the start of the deterioration of freedom of speech for all his subjects. Should he act or should he remain impartial and let politicians decide.
The press debate as well as the freedom of speech debate all rattle around ones head as you then begin to question the role of the monarchy in this great country of ours all at the same time. What makes Bartlett’s writing so masterly is that just when you think you have a handle on his own views on any of the above he shifts gear and takes you up a new unexplored avenue of debate.
Tim Pigott-Smith gives a perfectly observed and quite beautiful performance as Charles. In what must be the highlight of his already brimming career this is a marvel and an utter gift for him as an actor. There is little or no attempt at impersonation, yet he manages to give us a Charles that we recognise and accept immediately. Without falling to mockery or caricature Pigott-Smith begins with a beleaguered and limp Charles, the one that is so often scorned in the media. However he grows through the course of the play and shines brilliantly as Charles finally feels as though he has found a cause worth fighting for and feels that he is leading his nation. As he begins to unravel Piggot-Smith is heart wrenching as he desperately clings to the crown and to his family. Its a stunning performance.
Goold has surrounded his leading man with a fine cast, all of whom have an uncanny resemblance to those they play without making any attempt at impersonating them. Margot Leicester is an unwavering Camilla, standing by her man at all costs whilst Richard Goulding is a deeply unhappy Harry, searching for normality and never quite finding it. Rory Fleck Byrne gives us a bland William being controlled by Lydia Wilson’s excellent and manipulative Kate. Wilson gives Kate a Lady Macbeth style makeover, looking beautiful and never letting the smile down as she carefully steers her husband, always making sure that he makes the right decisions.
This is a play that will only have relevance for a very short period of time. It feels like a truly timely and special piece that if you are lucky enough to see will live in your theatregoing memory for a very long time after. You will also leave the theatre with debates raging in your head having been stimulated by this remarkable piece. A must see.