Brighton Fringe 2018
In this BLT production directed by Claire Lewis, features Michael James’ striking original music incorporating solo cello pieces – Bach’s first cello suite and Kodaly’s Sonata. Michael Folkard’s simple flexible set with newspapers sketch a yellow/tangerine backdrop shifting with Beverley Grover’s light (and sound) design Here too though Graham Brown’s movement direction ensures crowd control and a notably fluid way with scene changes. Janet White’s stage managing here too deserves mention. And the costumes by Ann Atkins, Glenys Stuart and Barbara Campbell are full with regalia, military pomp, courtiers’ mode, hoodied-mobs with masks.
King Charles III will never ascend the throne. Prince Charles has decided on the duller respectability of George VII, deeming the Charles line perhaps too raffishly exciting, always interfering with the constitution or dissolving parliament as both did. Nothing in Mike Bartlett’s 2014 King Charles III would change his mind, and certainly not in this consummate production directed by Claire Lewis.
Mike Bartlett’s known for two kinds of play. Till 2017 with Albion the most successful have been those that close in on their main protagonist, each choice or manoeuvre boxing them into oblivion: Contractions, Bull, King Charles III itself and in part Game – the latter two like Albion premiered at the Almeida with its intimate space. Others like the NT-premiered Earthquakes in London (seen at BLT last year) try the reverse, people jumping their fates. Results are baggy. BLT’s triumph was to improve on the original with a little editing.
Not something required in this play, which Michael Billington counts amongst the 101 greatest plays ever. This production features Michael James’ striking original music incorporating solo cello pieces – Bach’s first cello suite and Kodaly’s Sonata. Michael Folkard’s simple flexible set with newspapers sketch a yellow/tangerine backdrop shifting with Beverley Grover’s light (and sound) design chilling with blue or disco strobe and much else.
King Charles III is the classic Bartlett play, particularly so as it plays straight a deadpan rendering of Jacobean blank verse with fantastic conjunctions of arcane syntax with demotic – particularly funny when uttered by Royals as ‘Fuck Yah’ in Kate’s response to Harry’s latest, Jessica when she finds out they both hail from the north east (originally this was Reading!). Another lies in the courtiers’ formalised rendering of lines of for instance ’Sloanish fluff’.
Some characters like Jessica (more on her later) sashay between prose and formality. Just after her outburst Kate reverts to lines like: ‘since we sat/And had expansive breakfast, while our King,/Did talk, you seem distract and pensive-like.’ Bartlett’s pull between formal and colloquial is a near miraculous coup of compression and function: it’s the summation of all those little mazes he pushes his characters into. Blank verse’s lethal tread works ever tighter.
An ascending monarch unable to square his conscience as defender of freedoms with his duty to sign everything as constitutional monarch. What makes it far more than stubbornness is that Charles, played as a powerful curmudgeon by John Tolputt superbly stentorian at climaxes, is reluctantly prepared to give assent to faintly hostile Labour PM Mr Evans (Gerry Wicks) bill to restrict freedom of the press which the Conservatives oppose.
It’s Nikki Dunsford’s snake-voiced Mrs Stevens (a neat and timely re-gendering) who suggests Charles has an option: first to refuse, and then, as parliament’s about to vote out the Royal prerogative forever, to dissolve parliament. Naturally Stevens can’t support this in public, in fact opposes Charles. But eggs him on just the same. You wish Charles told Evans of this, but his novel decision to be briefed by the opposition as well as PM makes him perhaps sheepish and Evans dislikes royalty. So Charles looks wholly intransigent when in fact he’s being egged on by Stevens.
The subplot concerns mainly Harry’s meeting with Jessica, a St Martin’s student with as small past – paradoxically something the new bill might have protected. Jessica’s reluctantly drawn to Harry, has the meeting described above with William and Kate, gets warned off for Harry’s sake, then… Harry too is snared in several ways. His jumpy language (punctuates with ‘yeah’) is beautifully mimicked by Frank Leon whose carroty-headed loo and jumpy comedic timing superbly suits character and verse. and like William (Paul Morley) Camilla (Ann Atkins) and several other including Charly Sommers’ Kate, strikingly resemble the originals. More so than in any production I’ve seen they convince us: that includes the original with Tim Piggott-Smith and the touring version with Robert Powell in 2016.
Morley’s hesitant William audibly gathers strength, particularly after a little mischievous haunting – better handled here than in those professional productions too – and with a clipped introspection shows how someone not wholly unlike his father is pushed by a more successful prompter. His soliloquy recalls the late Queen’s frequent advice to him. As if she senses he’ll need to act sooner than either hope. Morley handles this like everything else, with a pained nagging premonition of disaster.
There’s other nagging too. Sommers’ Kate produces some thrilling Lady Macbeth speeches and her poise is a mix of icy rationale and seemingly warm entreaty. ‘So public everything I am, then I demand thins for myself… not simply help my husband to his crown/But wear one of my own.’ A far cry from Camilla’s early praise ‘what you’ve brought to us/A sense of fashion, better hair as well.’
Mandy-Jane Jackson’s alternation between whacky student and vulnerable young woman – entreating Bill Griffiths’ icily prim royal press tsar to help – lends joyous colour and you really believe her and Leon’s Harry are a match. Other roles are adroitly taken: Christopher Dangerfield in a range or privileges, Des Potton from butler to kebab-owner, Nick Roche memorable as a Speaker who resembles the current one and Frankie Knight who’s not only the mouthy TV producer but often out as a voice of the people on the streets or elsewhere. Tobias Clay, Stephen Evans and the mysterious Marian Tyndall (all will be revealed if you see this) add small measures of distinction of their own.
Naturally Tolputt’s Charles stands at the craggy pinnacle of this production. He possesses all the gravitas, the vocal command and the tragic crumbling of Bartlett’s Charles. You might say it’s a command performance and the future monarch might wincingly recognize something of himself here.
Here too though Graham Brown’s movement direction ensures not only brilliant crowd control in mob scenes or parliamentary debates, but a notably fluid way with scene changes – corteges and coffins melt into tables, suddenly become kebab bars and a benched parliament. Janet White’s stage managing here too deserves mention. And the costumes are to – well OK not die for, but are thrillingly full with regalia, military pomp, courtiers’ mode, hoodied-mobs with masks: Ann Atkins, Glenys Stuart and Barbara Campbell provide an eye-aching feast that’s never overdone.
What’s also notable is the astonishing command of blank verse throughout the company, and on a first night. Lewis ad her team must be congratulated on not only equalling the very finest standards of the BLT in what is almost in effect a repertory company, but in setting new ones. This is an outstanding production, one of the two or three finest amateur ones I’ve ever seen. It can hold its head amongst consummate professional ones.