Charles III is made for numbskulls by numbskulls

Plus: no less dramatic illiteracy is to be found in Howard Brenton’s Doctor Scroggy’s War at Shakespeare’s Globe

27 September 2014

8:00 AM

27 September 2014

8:00 AM

King Charles III

Wyndham’s Theatre, until 31 January 2015

Doctor Scroggy’s War

Shakespeare’s Globe, in rep until 10 October

Suppose Charles were to reign as a meddlesome, self-pitying, indecisive plonker. It’s a thought. It’s now a play, too, by Mike Bartlett. In his opening scene he bumps off Lilibet, bungs her in a box and assembles the family at Buck House to discuss ‘what next?’ Bartlett imagines them as stuck-up divs. William’s a self-righteous sourpuss. Kate’s a smug minx. Camilla’s a hectoring gadfly. Harry’s a weepy drunk. Charles is a colossally narcissistic nuisance. They’re too dim to understand the constitution so Camilla has to explain that a new reign commences with the death of the previous monarch and not at the coronation. (This is for the benefit of the audience, who are assumed to have the same poultry-level IQ as the Windsors.) The plot cranks into gear when Charles is asked to give royal assent to a bill he dislikes. He refuses. Westminster panics. Charles dissolves Parliament. Anarchists run riot. Abdication fever threatens Britain. And all because Charles has failed to draw any lessons from the biography of Charles I. Or even to have read it. Which seems improbable. As does the skittish impotence of the prime minister, who flaps ineffectually while the head of state smashes the state to smithereens. A real prime minister would buy Charles’s co-operation very easily by treating him like a troublesome backbencher and offering to promote his pet projects with a raft of upcoming legislation. But the play’s political antennae have been snipped off. Bartlett is after a Shakespearean atmosphere, so he uses stilted iambic pentameters, laced with archaisms. ‘What is it, husband, troubles you like this?’ He sometimes misuses words, ‘aloft’ for ‘aloof’, ‘distract’ for ‘distracted’, ‘holds’ for ‘warrants’. Sometimes he makes words up. William, awoken by a scream, says, ‘What a strange and ambulous night.’ When Charles meets his MPs, he treats them to this grammatical mind-boggler: ‘I am not prone to secrecy, but you have drawn that measure in my unsure heart.’

The cast of lookalikes is impressive, especially William (Oliver Chris), and Kate (Lydia Wilson). Richard Goulding’s Harry is too squat and pointy-faced. ‘I’m a ginger joke, bereft of value,’ he wheedles, though his brown quiff could do with a rustier tint. He gets involved in a weird, bitter romance with a beautiful, penniless misery named Jess. The royals fail to see that a toff-chav dalliance could generate excellent publicity for them so they freeze Jess out. Mind you, she’s bloody hard work. A charmless slob who dresses like a punk granny, she rebuffs a compliment from the world’s most eligible bachelor with, ‘Don’t patronise me.’ That’s because she loathes nobs. But when she’s excluded from the coronation, she gets all hurt and chippy about it. Nothing in this show makes sense. Not even Tim Pigott-Smith’s Charles, who comes across as a honking mass of frayed nerves. But he’s not ‘Charles’. No vocal ticks, no anxious cuff-adjustments, no bashful eyebrows, no querulous, lopsided smile. Instead he blusters and harrumphs and squints like a partially deflated Paddy Ashdown. I suspect that the director Rupert Goold ruled out a straight impersonation for fear the show might stray into caricature. Or become entertaining. Heaven forbid. A comedy in the West End! It’s such a shame. A script that breezily defames the royals ought to be great fun, but this cheerless, overblown little play seems to have been created by political numbskulls for those of similar calibre.

The Globe has a new drama about Harold Gillies, who pioneered the key techniques of plastic surgery during the first world war. Gillies was a zany genius with a love of practical jokes but the writer Howard Brenton can’t find space for him in this wordy pageant. Instead he focuses on military and social history. Brenton writes in the class-revenge style that was popular in his 1960s heyday. Proles are intelligent saints, toffs are bolshie morons. Nuance and subtext are beyond him. He can barely handle the simplest scene with intelligence or subtlety. We’re in a hospital. A soldier, with his face blown off but his eyesight intact, is visited by his parents. It’s not hard to foresee their emotional response. Joy at his survival, fear for his future and a profound urge to hide their anxieties and to show him love, strength and hope. Here’s what happens. The mother tiptoes towards her bandaged son as if approaching a spaniel with rabies. The father goes down like Ashley Young in the penalty area, and starts blubbing all over the carpet. The boy’s response is to announce his suicide. This sort of big-brass posturing defines Brenton’s dramatic method. Thankfully, the Globe’s programme is a wonderful artefact gleaming with nuggets of useful info. Disfigured veterans tended to become farmers if they lived in the country. In the city, they became cinema projectionists.

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Show comments
  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Long, long live the Queen.

  • mustbenice

    “Suppose Charles were to reign as a meddlesome, self-pitying, indecisive plonker.”

    Suppose? That’s a given. Smug Kate and weepy drunk Harry sound fair too.

    Can’t speak to the quality of the play, but I have no idea why people feel the need to grovel, desperately trying to defend and ingratiate themselves with the most parasitical and pointless family in the whole of Britain, who wouldn’t piss on the peasants if you were on fire.

    “Royalty pollutes people’s minds, boy. Honest men start bowing and bobbing just because someone’s granddad was a bigger murdering bastard than theirs was.” as Terry Pratchett once said. Yes, yes, we know he accepted the OBE, the quote is from one of his characters and sums up the situation perfectly.

    For heaven’s sake, enough with the boot licking. They choose to do nothing relevant and milk ordinary people of money they don’t deserve. If you think they work hard you have just proven that a) you have never worked hard in your life and don’t know what that phrase means and b) you’re a boot licking grotesque.

    They revel in their utterly unearned and pointless good fortune. And they deserve whatever mockery they receive. Next.

    • Carter Lee

      Mustbenice, your comment is even more tedious than Evan’s review.

      P.S.: Hate is boring

    • Kennybhoy

      “They choose to do nothing relevant …”

      Depends upon one’s idea of relevance I suppose…

      Queen Elizabeth II’s father King George VI served with distinction at Jutland, her much loved mother Queen Elizabeth was reportedly described by Adolf Hitler as “the most dangerous woman in Europe”, her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh served with distinction in World War II, her son Charles, Prince of Wales commanded a minesweeper, her son Prince Andrew, Duke of York served honourably in the South Atlantic in 1982, her grandson Prince Harry served in Afghanistan, and her grandson Prince William, Duke of Cambridge served as a search and rescue pilot and will soon take up a position as a civilian air ambulance pilot.

      “We Britons should rejoice that we have contrived to reach much legal democracy (we still need more of the economic) without losing our ceremonial Monarchy. For there, right in the midst of our lures, is that which satisfies the craving for inequality, and acts as a permanent reminder that medicine is not food. Hence a man’s reaction to Monarchy is a kind of test. Monarchy can easily be “debunked”; but watch the faces, mark well the accents, of the debunkers. These are the men whose tap-root in Eden has been cut: whom no rumour of the polyphony, the dance, can reach – men to whom pebbles laid in a row are more beautiful than an arch. Yet even if they desire mere equality they cannot reach it. Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes, or film-stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.”

      Excerpted from “Equality” by C.S. Lewis, originally published in this magazine on February 11,1944.

    • Fergus Pickering

      I take it you are a Republican. Most people aren’t.