King Charles III is a Shakespearean epic for the modern age

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BBC Two recently aired an adaptation of Mark Bartlett’s King Charles III, a play that aims to depict a possible future that might arise should Prince Charles become King. As the new King refuses to give royal assent to a controversial bill, a constitutional crisis develops and the country is divided.

The central conceit of King Charles III is to posit a world in which Shakespeare survived to satirise a modern monarch in much the same way he did with Richard III or Henry V. Bartlett’s King Charles III is firmly rooted within the Shakespearean tradition, drawing on familiar aspects of the Bard’s work – Diana appears as a ghostly spectre akin to Hamlet’s father, while Kate Middleton fills the role of Lady Macbeth.

But this goes beyond simply remixing familiar archetypes and applying a modern veneer to Shakespeare’s existing work. King Charles III mimics the style of Shakespearean language, written in blank verse; such use of iambic pentameter, rarely seen on television, allows a grandeur of scale that positions the play firmly within a Shakespearean style, but allows it to seek out its own innovations and find a fresh outlook. In turn then King Charles III isn’t a ‘greatest hits’ compilation that aims to imitate Shakespeare, but rather a play that seeks to stand among his work.

The play is also grounded within and grapples with themes that are deeply relevant today, giving it a sharp modern edge. Questions of democracy and freedom of the press are embedded within the texture of the piece, lending it a certain urgency that demands the attention and engagement of its audience. Indeed, there’s something about the concerns of King Charles III that feel almost universal; despite having been first performed in 2014 and set around 2022, it feels deeply relevant to 2017 with its presentation of a divided country in crisis. Despite not directly responding to Brexit or the spread of ‘fake news’, it feels as though there’s an implicit awareness of these issues in King Charles III – an awareness that lends the piece a powerful edge.

Powerful writing is accompanied, of course, by powerful performances. Tim Pigott-Smith gives a fantastic, nuanced performance as the flawed King; pulled in many directions, Pigott-Smith gives a quiet dignity to a man whose whole life has been “a lingering for the Throne”, and wants to be remembered as a good King. There’s a subtle energy to his performance, imbuing each soliloquy with such power that audiences can’t help but be drawn to the character. The same is true of Charlotte Riley as Kate Middleton, the other star actor of the piece – the character commands a certain power as a result of just how electric Riley’s performance is.

Ultimately, King Charles III is a nuanced and thoughtful piece of drama; powerful writing carried by skilled performances give it a far greater impact than a mere imitation of Shakespeare. The play manages to be a potent Shakespearean epic for the modern age, with all that entails – it’s a play that both demands, and deserves, your attention.

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