When Mike Bartlett's King Charles III first opened at the Almeida in April, I wrote here that "the West End surely beckons." That was hardly a difficult prediction to make for a play that is the most audacious and satisfying new play to arrive in London in a while, and now that it has duly moved to the appropriately regal Wyndham's Theatre, I'll make another easy prediction: it will surely be a huge hit there.
It taps into many contemporary themes that will resonate with a wide audience, from such matters as the ongoing relevance of the Royal family to issues around the freedom of the press. In a vividly imagined near future Prince Charles becomes King but puts himself into direct conflict with the Labour government of the day and refuses to sign a new bill that curtails the freedom of the press into law.
There are some stinging lines. I particularly loved Charles's resigned acceptance of the consequences of supporting those freedoms: "It's with the knowledge they will never live up to a higher standard. Naked girls and boys will illustrate their pages. Horrific murders will be made more atrocious by intrusion, and they'll make hypocrisy an art, insisting that they stand chief moralist while making cash as base pornographers."
As a former long-standing critic on a national tabloid, I've witnessed this hypocrisy first-hand and suffered its direct consequences. But you don't have to be a bruised victim of this yourself to enjoy Bartlett's witty, wise play, nor do you have to harbour republican sympathies: this is a play that implicates, challenges and confronts us all in an imagined future, as the country is pushed to the brink of civil war.
It also provides crisp and wonderfully believable portraits of Charles, Camilla, William, his wife Kate and brother Harry, each of them tremendously played by Tim Pigott-Smith (in arguably the performance of his career), Margot Leicester, Oliver Chris, Lydia Wilson and Richard Goulding respectively.
Bartlett's play has a Shakespearean sweep and vigour (and it specifically channels the Bard in its extensive use of blank verse, as well as echoes of plays like King Lear, Henry IV and Hamlet). It is given a production of great rigour and spectacle by Rupert Goold, with fantastic live music performed by Belinda Sykes and Ann-Helena McLean that lend it great atmosphere.
This remains an unmissable event. And now that there are many more seats available in the West End than there were at the Almeida, there is no reason to miss it.
"Tim Pigott-Smith gives the performance of his distinguished career as Charles. He eschews mere impersonation to convey, in the first half, a tormented idealist struggling to come to terms with his new role. He then grows into a movingly tragic figure in his baffled rage at being outmanoeuvred by members of his own family and his realisation of the hollowness of the throne."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"There are confident performances all round in Rupert Goold’s stylish production, not least from James's dynamically front-foot PM. This is undoubtedly one of the most stimulating plays of the year."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
"Tim Piggott-Smith gives the performance of his career as Charles and is supported by a sterling cast who all manage to create convincing simulacra of the Royal Family without lapsing into caricature."
Neil Norman for The Daily Express
External links to full reviews from popular press