Review: King Charles III @ Birmingham Rep

Take a royal family living firmly in the middle of a media storm. Stressful? Well kings have always been public – they are literally at the head of their people and therefore visible; an invisible king is no king at all.

And the Rep’s current hit show King Charles III (subtitled ‘A future history play’) couldn’t be more topical or timely about sovereigns – as I write, this morning’s headlines celebrate the day Elizabeth II with her reign of 63 years surpasses even Victoria’s record.

But what of her eldest son? Well that’s where this play begins. For here a newly-ascended Charles III is a king in old age, and perhaps a modern Lear. Mike Bartlett’s drama, fittingly written in Shakespearean blank verse and played out in a medieval arena shows a king forced to wait too long. And when he tries to rule, this middle-aged media-gagged monarch brings a very middle ages-type situation boiling to an explosive political head.

Robert Powell in King Charles III

Robert Powell in King Charles III

Robert Powell is on superb form as the superannuated prince finally made king while a huge supporting cast portray an array of media-familiar figures. With plenty of nods to Henry IV parts 1 & 2 we see a treacherous elder son, Ben Righton as William, Richard Glaves as a modern slum-loving Prince Harry (very Prince Hal this) who thinks Wetherspoons is “cool” and dead-ringer for the role Jennifer Brydon as a power-behind-the-future-throne Kate.

The recognisability of these Shakespearean and tabloid–familiar personalities does more than hint that they are archetypes doomed to replicate themselves endlessly in England’s story. Visits from Diana’s ghost may seem in bad taste, but that’s Shakespearean too – her shade still haunts the media.

This is new theatre at its very best, vivid, topical, thought provoking, taking a long look at the hard heart of England. For me its surprise ending is realistic rather than regal, prosaically unpoetic, a bloodless theatrical coup, but go and see what you think of this timeless tale. As a play for our times, it’s unbeatable.

KING CHARLES III runs at the Rep until September 19. For tickets phone the box office on 0121 236 4455 or visit birmingham-rep.co.uk.

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