Review: Thought-provoking play truly fit for a king

Robert Powell in Charles III
Robert Powell in Charles III

The Queen is dead, long live the King? Due to our current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, having been on the throne longer than any of her predecessors, almost 64 years, many people might well think that day will never come.

However, imagine that Great Britain’s longest-serving monarch were to die, prompting her eldest son to take the throne.

As soon as he takes office, the new King Charles III has his first duty thrust upon him, a meeting with his prime minister, a Labour politician.

It quickly becomes apparent that he has no intention of quietly following his mother’s precedent.

Mike Bartlett’s new play arrived at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal on Monday and will reign over the Grey Street venue until Saturday.

If you’re not interested in the lives of the royal family, the way we are governed and the future of both the monarchy and the country, I’d probably tell you to give it a miss, but that doesn’t apply to too many of us.

However, if you want to watch two and a half hours of stimulating theatre, superb acting, brilliant writing and a bit of light comedy, attendance should be by royal decree.

The themes of Bartlett’s play are interesting and thought-provoking.

Is it right that a man, or woman, not elected in a democratic society should be allowed to sign laws into force?

But if the said king or queen is acting on behalf of those people, then surely that is fair, or is it? These are among the questions posed to the audience by this brilliant play.

The fantastic Robert Powell steps into the shoes of the outspoken king, showing him refuse to sign a law limiting the freedom of the press.

He declares it an affront to traditional freedoms, refuses to give it the royal assent and sparks a constitutional crisis, erupting in a spectacular close to the first half.

He then exploits another royal prerogative to dissolve parliament by entering the House of Commons, becoming the first monarch to do so since Charles I in 1642.

Although it might seem like some pretty tough viewing, Bartlett cleverly uses the comic character of Prince Harry, brilliantly played by Richard Glaves, to create a sub-plot exploring the very real question of the royals’ future.

Harry – like Charles, William and the rest of the royal family – has been at the centre of news stories all his life, and it has all become a bit too much.

At that point, he runs into a republican girl called Jess, played by Lucy Phelps, and she attempts to change his life.

Phelps plays a young arts student who wants to see an end to the monarchy but ends up falling for the prince and seems to forget her morals when she’s confront with the public relations success that is Kate and Wills.

But all her efforts come under threat as a skeleton in her closet makes its way onto the front pages of national newspapers.

The play’s finale sees a turn of the tables as William, under the thumb of the formidable Kate, is forced to take control of a constitutional nightmare.

This work is a true masterpiece, and it is right that it has received critical praise and various national awards since first being staged in April last year.

For me, the play overstepped the mark in one respect, though. The inclusion of Diana in ghost form was a bit uncomfortable to watch.

The play’s climax, seeing the two sons come together to make sure the bill is passedto limit press freedoms, forcing Charles to step down, almost suggests they are avenging their mother, and that seems to me to be a step to far.

That aside, the show is a real work of art. The music, staging and the ideas behind the production are so well thought out they leave you feeling like you’ve just watched something quite special.

Tickets cost from £14. For further information, go to www.theatreroyal.co.uk