Last year we had two speculative theatrical imaginations of our reigning monarch the Queen's interactions with her Prime Ministers: a whole slew of them in The Audience, and with just one of them, Margaret Thatcher, in Handbagged (which coincidentally has just transferred to the West End's Vaudeville Theatre).
Now the role of a constitutional monarch - and whether or not they have any real power - is directly challenged in Mike Bartlett's vivid and wonderful King Charles III, which imagines the role that Prince Charles might try to play after his mother dies. He puts himself in direct conflict with the Labour government of the day, refusing to sign a new bill that curtails the freedom of the press into law. And when the government seeks to enact it anyway, he summarily dissolves parliament, and pushes the country to the brink of civil war.
It's rivetingly imaginative stuff, and chillingly credible, too, in Rupert Goold's bustling, bold production that's full of spot-on impressions of Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith), Camilla (Margot Leicester), William (Oliver Chris), Kate (Lydia Wilson) and Harry (Richard Goulding). But this isn't Spitting Image; far from caricature, they are each instantly believable.
And so is the situation that playwright Mike Bartlett plunges them into. He cleverly casts it in the form of a Shakespearean history play, mostly written in blank verse, with strong echoes of plays like King Lear, Henry IV and Hamlet (most notably with a ghost that keeps re-visiting the scene).
The result feels like an insightful history play for today, and the best modern play about the monarchy since Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III. It is equally full of wit and character, with a personal tragedy at its centre. Directed with incredible momentum by Goold, and magnificently cast and acted throughout, it makes for a truly wonderful theatrical evening. The West End surely beckons.
"Goold’s production is blessed with wit, clarity and moments of deeper feeling, and the cast is outstanding. Tim Pigott-Smith brilliantly captures the hand-clasping awkwardness of Charles, and his perpetual impression of a man ill at ease with himself and others."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"Otherwise, for stimulating comedy about this institution, King Charles III is up there with Shaw's Apple Cart, in which the monarch abdicates and set up his own political party."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Rupert Goold's production, played on a raised, empurpled dais, is also a model of dignified restraint and gets strong performances from Oliver Chris as a filially loyal William propelled into action by Lydia Wilson's feminist Kate."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Once, this sort of irreverent provocation would have seen the playwright condemned to be burned at the stake. Even now it feels a brazen venture — yet it’s one that pays off royally."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard