Mike Bartlett's King Charles III at the Wesley Memorial Church on Monday put me in mind of a couple of the plays of Jean Anouilh, now a half-forgotten dramatist but in his heyday (1940s to 1960s) a mainstay of the French theatre. In plays like Antigone and Becket he examined the conflict between conscience and political expediency in the form respectively of what amounts to divine right and a popular mandate. These weighty themes also constitute the heart of Mr Bartlett's drama, as Charles III and his advisers and family in the crimson-and-ermine corner, and the leaders of the Labour Government and the Tory Opposition in the blue-and-red corner lock horns for supremacy. The High Victorian, Decorated Gothic interior of the church with its ostentatious oak arches and heavy panelling also hinted at the Canterbury Cathedral setting of Becket.
The play's tone veers between the skittish and the serious, aiming to pierce its trio of targets in satirical comedy, political lesson and psycho-drama, and the genre arc more or less follows that order since the tone gradually darkens as the comedy that centres on Prince Harry and his irreverent squeeze Jess ('I'm currently exploring Islam's relationship with pornography') progressively drops away. Even the political dog-fight narrows down to an inter-generational, personal struggle. Mr Bartlett's ambition is admirable, but whether in attempting his triple thrust he's slightly compromised their individual force is a moot point. The play's a long one (2 hrs 45 mins inc. interval) and on the whole I thought the Harry-and-Jess scenes constituted perhaps more of a distraction than an asset.
There's ambition, too, in the choice of blank verse as the medium. While this has the audience casting its thoughts appropriately to the Shakespearean history plays, it's a dangerous thing to barge into Shakespeare territory and rather bathetic, anachronistic lines of the type: 'This morning the king did turn....' and 'Be careful, I do not trust him well' went down with a clunk.
Andrew Whiffin was a first-class Charles, managing cleverly his transition from cheery monarch, shiny with hope in his heart and a spring in his step, to a careworn Henry IV-type figure ('Presume not that I am the thing I was'), ageing before our eyes by 20 years; the bull first pricked by the picadorish politicians, then weakened by the darts of the banderillero in the form of his own press secretary (a very good Paul Clifford, all deferential smoothness until the moment of truth) and finally stilettoed by the twin matadores, William and Kate ('You and Catherine are the King and Queen of column inches'). Or should that be Kate and William since Mr Bartlett has thankfully jettisoned stereotypes involving clothes horses, party poppers and countesses who lunch in favour of a woman with a sharp eye for both the present and posterity, unafraid, in the traditional role of the head of state in a constitutional monarchy, to both advise and warn.
Kelly Ann Stewart had fizz aplenty and enough of a hint of petulant will under quite a regal veneer to make of this Kate a thoroughly plausible figure. She also moved well up and down the long acting space of the nave. Ian Nutt's William was an increasingly authoritative prince: intensely loyal both to the monarch's person and the institution, but also tuned to the political reality of de facto limited powers. Both here and in Festen at the Mathematical Institute 18 months ago, Mr Nutt demonstrated the priceless ability to seem casual while at the same time suggesting intense concentration; a rare acting asset and one ordinarily demonstrated only by skilled professionals. Liz Bishop, last seen by me in roaring farce, succeeded in laying bare the Prime Minister's dilemma, all but crushed between the rock of historical precedent and the hard place of expediency, and then went on deftly to convince us of the private humanity beneath the public strength.
Director Dan Whitley made excellent use of the longitudinal space for the more ceremonial scenes and he and his collaborators conjured up a really regal Coronation with yards of velvet, a koh-i-noor diamond lookalike and a whoosh of G.F. Handel. I especially admired the lighting by Chris Cooper of the second press conference, though to my ears the music sound level was a little on the muffled side. Elsewhere, I was amused by the Chief of the Defence Staff's crumpled khaki uniform, surely a dead ringer in all but colour for that of his North Korean counterpart, and Camilla's wig that, alas, must last have adorned the head of Dame Prudence in Jack and the Beanstalk.
This show was the usual professional job by OTG, Oxford's most dependable amateur company. Food for thought, high emotion, humour, spectacle, energy; we left both shaken and stirred.