Review: King Charles III at Chichester Festival Theatre

The Prince of Wales is known to hold strong views on a range of issues and has never been hesitant in presenting them to ministers in private letters over many years.

Robert Powell in King Charles III. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Robert Powell in King Charles III. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

But when he becomes King Charles III, a role that is required to be neutral and above politics, how easy might he find it not to make a stand on a matter of fundamental public interest if he believed the elected government was passing legislation that was self-serving?

This play by Mike Bartlett fast forwards to just such a dilemma. As his first function as Monarch, a new Act of Parliament requires his signature - a piece of legislation which would seriously curtail what the press might publish.

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Charles, no stranger to the spiteful vicissitudes of the media, might be assumed to support his Prime Minister but he sees a fundamental threat to the free speech which makes his kingdom great.

What follows are the explosive battles between head of state and elected government; of the public disquiet which erupts; and of the internal divisions which manifest themselves within the Royal Family as the monarchy is shaken to the core of its existence.

The whole imagined saga is told not as a piece of futuristic drama but as Shakespeare would have relayed the tragedy. This is a modern-day Hamlet or Lear, complete with the ghost of the Princess of Wales.

Doom-laden in the best traditions of the Bard, this play accentuates public perceptions of the next king with an irreverent lack of courtesy.

Yet the hypothesis is not without fault.

The Prince of Wales is certainly shrewd enough to understand the differences between the freedom his current role permits and those that would be afforded when he is ruler.

The Royal Family - and William and Kate in particular - would never abandon Charles in the way that is suggested.

And finally, any king that stood up for free speech and the freedom of the press in the way that this play indicates, is likely to be portrayed by editors across the land as a national hero and not an interfering and well-intentioned fool.

But this is a remarkably thought-provoking and challenging piece of contemporary theatre. It tests and tears at its own assumptions with a ruthless abandon.

Robert Powell gives a colossal performance as the king while Richard Glaves as Prince Harry brings the vital Shakespearean contrast of the comic and the condemned.

As for the Chichester audience, they are reminded not of the power of monarchy but of the severe constraints with which modern democracy enslaves it.

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