Sydney Theatre Company and Adshel present the Almeida Theatre production, KING CHARLES III, by Mike Bartlett, at the Roslyn Packer Theatre. 31 March - 30 April.
In the program notes from the author of KING CHARLES III, Mike Bartlett:
The idea of KING CHARLES III arrived in my head with the form and content very clear, and inextricably linked. It would be a play about the moment Charles takes the throne, and how his conscience would lead him to refuse to sign a bill into law. An epic royal family drama, dealing with power and national constitution, was the content, and therefore the form had to be Shakespearean. It would need five acts, quite possibly a subplot, but most worryingly, the majority would have to be in verse.The play was commissioned by Rupert Goold, for Headlong, but ended up as part of his Artistic Directorship at the Almeida Theatre, opening there in April, 2014, to be followed by a transfer season to Wyndham's Theatre on the West End in September 2014, opening on Broadway in November, 2015. Three years later it is on a Sydney stage. It was worth the wait.
The political dilemma at the heart of this play is as an important an issue in contemporary times (Australia) as any I can think of: Freedom of the Press (Communication). That Mr Bartlett singles this out is of great relevancy in any Democracy in the face of a kind of 'fascistic ' tendency of our governing bodies that prevails in the management of the new 24 hour news cycle, through 'censorship' and threat of embodied law of prosecution and punishment. This is not a British concern alone, I reckon, ask the farm holders fighting the threat of 'fracking' and coal mining on our very own country properties, or any would-be whistle blower working in our corporate/government bodies who see unfairness and illegalities as part of the 'system' and fear to reveal the wrongs they know: to exercise their right (moral responsibility) to warn, to bring attention to unethical, outrageous and/or criminal behaviour and practices. This play's content has its finger on the pulse of our present age, no matter its origin of country.
Add, the artistic challenge of the conceit to write a play in a fantasised near-future in 'Jacobethan' English (iambic pentameters, et all), with all of the familiar modes of that era's dramatic structure conventions: predicting ghosts, Kings in a spiral of a tangle for accession and deposition, with a comic subplot with relevant thematic support to the main dilemma, and it makes it breathtaking in its audacity, giving the play both depth and substance. It is an intellectual bonus (but is not a necessity to enjoy the play) to recall the Shakespearean echoes of plays such as Richard II, the Henry IV's and even Macbeth. The wit and the vivacity of the writing takes it into a stratosphere of a stimulant - tonic - worth taking, and in the relative boring desert of our, particularly, recent Australian writers' achievements, a not to be missed event. Especially, if you love the theatre and believe it is a 'relevant form' that not only can entertain but may help to make a society better.
What was the last comparable Australian play presented with such explorative courage of contemporary issue ,accompanied with real wit (cheek) of writing skill? "Is there one at all?", I try to recall. The last time I experienced this level of intellectual excitement accompanied by the audacity of witty writing, from an Australian may have been the premiere season of Stephen Sewell's 2003 play: MYTH, PROPAGANDA AND DISASTER IN NAZI GERMANY AND CONTEMPORARY AMERICA (for me, even the title brings a smile of anticipation of a good time). Have you any other offers to add?
This is the fourth production of Rupert Goold's that I have seen (the others being: SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR, ENRON- the New York production, and THE EFFECT - at the National Theatre) and it is the most restrained in its directorial delivery and he serves this play well. A fixed surround of a towering classic bricked wall with a central raised rectangle on the centre stage, upon which the spare furniture for the different locations are brought on and off for the action of the play, Designed by Tom Scutt. Similarly, the contemporary costuming is economic, emblematic, in its choices. The lighting Design, by Jon Clark, is pragmatic in its efficiency with warmths of a period candle lighting to connect us to the past even in this future world. The Composition of the production, by Jocelyn Pook, is the least pleasing element of the Design 'package' in its recall, for me, and falling short of, a welcome homage to the sounds of Michael Nyman and Philip Glass.
Robert Powell, new to the role of Charles, (it was created originally, by Tim Piggot-Smith - this is a world-touring production) acquits himself with growing stature as the play progresses to an extremely moving denouement. I wished for a slightly faster tempo to make me 'chase' the delights of Mr Bartlett's writing. Mr Powell's care with the verse sometimes a trifle laborious - we waited for the next word instead of having to chase it. Whilst, Tim Treloar as Mr Evans, the leader of the Government, is outstanding in his presence and energetic vocal and physical focus in his part to the arguments and plotting of the play. Too, I enjoyed the power and subtlety of Ben Righton, as William, and enjoyed the borderline 'joke' constructed about the character of Harry, by Richard Glaves, nicely counterbalanced by his embraced gravity to a sense of duty and rejection of his heart's yearnings, in the final capitulation to the requirements of 'the firm'- the family, in the final scenes.
But it is the relative high standard of the ensemble that is worth attending too: Jennifer Bryden (Kate), Dominic Jephcott (James Reiss), Lucy Phelps (Jess), Carolyn Pickles (Camilla), Giles Taylor (Mr Stevens), Beatrice Walker, Paul Westwood and Geoffrey Lumb (particularly) in a variety of roles. Note, none of them, apparently, using artificial voice projection - electronic microphones - to deliver their text (although, there are some dead acoustic spots in this 'notorious' theatre still, with or without artificial support), which appear to be a consistent necessity/unfortunate habit/need, for our contemporary Australian artists working on this stage. (I remarked that it is the quality and consistent voice training of the British actor that has been part of the positive evidence, presented and debated, in the American Monthly magazines and internet, last year, as to why they are making such inroads into their successful casting in American film (e.g. SELMA) - their strength in Voice production and characterisation over their American counterparts winning them opportunity. I believe that this part of the craft is often neglected by the Australian actor - a few exceptions proving the rule.)
KING CHARLES III, by Mike Bartlett, won the Olivier Award in 2015 for Best New Play, and Michael Billington, theatre writer and critic, includes it as one of the 101 GREATEST PLAYS from Antiquity to the Present:
I have chosen Mike Bartlett's KING CHARLES III not because I think it is a timeless masterpiece but because I believe it raises, with stylish wit and verbal élan, serious questions about the future of Britain and the nature of good governance. Shaw once said that A DOLL'S HOUSE would be forgotten when A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM was still being performed but that it would have done 'more work in the world'. In fact, Ibsen's play has achieved classic status, but Shaw's idea that drama can be judged by its capacity to shape and mould opinion strikes me as perfectly valid.This play, I believe, using Britain as a lens to see through, is just as valid in asking serious questions about the future of Australia and the nature of good governance of our country. This is not a Monarchist play, one way or the other, but a serious one using the monarchy and its constitutional powers, as a means that ought to urge us to look more carefully at the governing of ourselves delivered to us through the decisions of the many levels of our elected governments, Local, State and Federal. It appears as a warning for us, as a constituency, to be vigilant to the convenient passing of controls, out of our 'hands' as a citizenry, to the law makers and their lobbyists - leaders of corporations and corporations themselves - laden with donations of monetary support.
KING CHARLES III, is an audacious entertainment with the glorious 'brains' of provocation. Mike Bartlett is a writer we ought to take note of: EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON (2010) - 'an epic play about climate change, corporate corruption and fathers and children' is another play, of his, worth knowing. The likelihood of seeing it, however, in Sydney, is fairly remote, I reckon, unless the Amateur theatre, maybe at the New in Newtown, can secure the rights, as they did, surprisingly, for Jez Butterworth's JERUSALEM (2009), another prize-winning play.
See KING CHARLES III, while you can - it is worth your time, undoubtedly. Highly recommended.