LONDON — The Queen is dead. Charles, paranoid and power obsessed, dissolves Parliament and parks a tank outside Buckingham Palace. While Prince William dithers, his steely and pragmatic wife, Kate, orchestrates a palace coup to save the monarchy and prevent Britain from sliding into civil war.
So goes the audacious plot of “King Charles III,” a new play by Mike Bartlett, which opened here last week at the Almeida Theater to glowing, if somewhat scandalized, reviews. The reviewer for The New Statesman called it the “boldest and most provocative play about the royal family in British theatrical history,” adding, “If the Lord Chamberlain still policed the stage, Bartlett would be in the Tower,” a reference to the royal official who had the power to censor plays until 1968.
Advertisements for the play — showing the real Prince Charles dressed for his coronation — were barred from the London Underground until the image of the prince’s face was heavily pixelated. Most advance tickets have already sold out, but more will be released on the day of each performance. “I suspect people will be camping out on the streets,” said a critic from The Telegraph. Written in iambic pentameter, modeled on Shakespearean histories like “Richard II” but set in the near future, the play explores what might happen if a British monarch bucked centuries of tradition and refused to rubber-stamp the will of Parliament. In the process, Mr. Bartlett imagines Queen Elizabeth’s funeral; Diana, Princess of Wales, as a ghost; and Prince Harry running off with a grungy art student he meets at the London nightclub Boujis. She takes him to Dans le Noir, a London restaurant where patrons eat in the dark, and there he is mistaken for a real estate agent. “We talked about mortgages,” the happy prince exclaims.
Part fantasy, part comedy, “King Charles III” is still intended as a serious inquiry into the role the monarchy plays in Britain.
“Here we have two things that are central to the DNA of this country: Shakespeare and the royal family,” said Rupert Goold, the play’s director. “As the play emerged in production, we realized more and more that this is our ‘Godfather,’ this is our ur-family onto whom we map all our own families, and we need to treat them like stiff-upper-lip, rhetorical, ancient Corleones.”
The play is the first directed by Mr. Goold in his debut season as artistic director of the Almeida, a fashionable 325-seat theater in the Islington section of London. Mr. Goold’s earlier experiments have also been attention grabbing: turning “American Psycho” into a musical, for example, and directing Patrick Stewart in a bloody, Stalinist-era “Macbeth.” His provocative style would have normally made him resistant to a new play in verse, he said, adding that it is the type of thing written by “retired majors or strange little women in the home counties.”