Billed as “a future history”, Mike Bartlett’s new play begins with a chanted Lux Aeterna for the Queen’s funeral. Director Rupert Goold makes the most of it, with the whole cast bearing candles in the gloom beneath Tom Scutt’s dado arc of faint, jumbled historic monarchal portraits. Later the ensemble is briefly hooded and in Guy Fawkes masks. Palace – and Parliament, and Abbey – are unfussily indicated by a pink-carpeted dais. There are stars and garters. Goold knows how to make an impact.


At the play’s heart is Tim Pigott Smith, brilliantly capturing the ageing Charles not as impressionist but as essence. The heir’s hand gestures and occasional buzzing consonants are there, but more importantly he catches not only the habitual angst but Charles’ rarer, but authentic, edge of ironic mischief. Just as well that this great actor is cast, since Bartlett seems to see the part as a cross between Richard II and Lear, with a dash of Edward VII. To ramp up the Shakespearian history-play feel he writes most conversations, especially between royals and politicians, in iambic pentameter. If you are no poet this is a big risk. It can chime quite horribly (“he stands his ground as stand his ground he must”). Once or twice it works – as when the anguished King says “Without my voice and spirit, I am dust”. But too often it caused me to scrawl STUPID in capitals on my notebook.


This Charles, in his first meeting with a (leftish) Prime Minister, is confronted with a new press and privacy act, which he considers hampers the ancient right of free speech. He refuses to sign the Royal Assent. The PM (a Cleggish Adam James) insists. The smarmy Tory opposition leader (Nicholas Rowe) at first encourages Charles then reneges, realizing that the precedent of royal interference is dangerous. The King remembers that technically he can dissolve Parliament and force an election, and does. In the ensuing mayhem of dissent, riots and military deployment his next heir (Oliver Chris as a spookily lookalike William) is persuaded by a machiavellian Kate (Lydia Wilson) to wade in. Meanwhile Harry – a funny, touching, dishevelled, conflicted evocation by Richard Goulding – falls in love with a stroppy art student in Doc Martens whose past “sexts” come to haunt them.

Promising stuff, and Pigott-Smith carries superbly the frustration of a man of strong ideals pitchforked into a role which makes him a puppet for politicians of dubious morality and sense (very topical in Maria-Miller week). The downside is not only the tortured blank verse – which creates a barrier to belief – or even the wincingly unnecessary appearances of Diana’s ghost, forever sticking her oar in. It is also marred by a certain News-Quizzy cartoonishness. The idea that Harry would be awed at being introduced by his girl to “Sainsbury’s! I bought a Scotch Egg!” is just stupid: the young princes have led far more recognizable lives than their predecessors, William as a student making his own beans on toast.


Also, the burning issue of the press freedom law is almost forgotten in favour of the Royal Assent row. In the second half there are surges of power, mainly because of Pigott-Smith’s strength, and genuine sparks of emotion from the princes. But the most interesting speech (free from ti-tum-ti-tum iambics) is from a nocturnal kebab-man. He tells Harry that since the Queen died people don’t know where they live any more: too many British things are eroding: army, post office, pubs, monarchy…
Now that is interesting. And prescient. Could have done with more of that.


box office 0207 359 4404, to 31 May
partner: Aspen
Rating: three   3 Meece Rating


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