News & Commentary, Stage, Theatre

King Charles III’s Harry and Wills on the royals behind closed doors

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There aren’t many plays that inspire loud booing and shouting during curtain calls, but Mike Bartlett’s wildly successful King Charles III has certainly struck a chord with British audiences and has occasionally proven provocative.

The play, which won the 2015 Olivier Award for Best Play and features in Guardian critic Michael Billington’s top 101 plays of all time, imagines a possible future in which Queen Elizabeth II dies and Prince Charles ascends to the throne. But when the Prime Minister asks Charles to sign off on a bill which might threaten freedom of the media, the monarchy falls into disarray.

Since September of last year, Ben Righton and Richard Glaves have been touring the UK, playing Prince William and Prince Harry, respectively, in the Almeida Theatre production of the play, about to open as part of Sydney Theatre Company’s 2016 season. Both actors (and the whole cast) are from the UK, so they believed they had a fairly decent knowledge of the relationship between the British royal family and their subjects before appearing in the play.

But they’ve been surprised by the passion and range of reactions they’ve received from British audiences, from the most committed Monarchists, who have booed, hissed and tutted their way through performances, to those who want to see the Monarchy fall.

“People feel they own the royal family and therefore have the right to be incredibly opinionated about what does or doesn’t happen and how they’re presented on stage,” Righton says.

The play imagines what happens behind closed doors and takes its style from Shakespearean history plays, in which the personal meets the political. It’s been an interesting challenge for Righton, who says Prince William is a bit of a closed book in many respects.

Photo by Richard Hubert Smith
Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

“There are things that you can find out about William, but I couldn’t tell you anything beyond some really obvious things,” Righton says. “I really don’t know anything about him. They’ve kept his private life somehow incredibly private. I don’t know if he’s scared of stuff, what food he likes, what films he likes.

“You might find the odd snippet of him at university looking like he’s up to mischief, but beyond that he plays the game incredibly well. He’s very much his grandmother’s grandson.”

The situation is slightly different when it comes to Prince Harry, who audiences think they’ve gotten to know over the years due to the more intense media scrutiny.

“A lot of audiences have said to me: Harry isn’t like that; it’s not fair for him to be portrayed that way,” Glaves says. “Because he has transformed — he’s really grown up a lot. But in this play he’s shown still as this playboy kind of figure we used to know. But it is a work of fiction and a ‘what if?'”

In the play, Harry is very much the black sheep of the family, and has a comedic subplot which sees him venture out of the palace and mix with the common people. That narrative thread is loosely inspired by Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry V, and features the only dialogue in the play which isn’t written in blank verse.

Photo by Richard Hubert Smith
Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

When Bartlett came up with the idea to write a play about the monarchy post-Elizabeth II, he knew he would need to do so in a style grand enough to match the characters on stage. The iambic pentameter, the rhythmic structure used by Shakespeare, seemed the most appropriate.

“It elevates it in a way,” Glaves says. “It gives everything this mythic quality and raises it above just being a domestic thing of here and now to asking bigger, epic questions.”

But unlike Shakespeare’s work, the vocabulary used is almost entirely contemporary (with the exception of a “doth” or two and “arm-ed” instead of “armed”). Righton says there’s an interesting juxtaposition between the content of the language and the grandness of the structure.

“Shakespeare’s work is full of medieval metaphors for the characters’ worlds. In our play, there are metaphors in iambic pentameter for microwave meals and sat navs.”

The upcoming Sydney performances will be the first time this cast has performed the play outside of the UK (another cast performed the play on Broadway last year). Glaves and Righton say they’ve got no idea how local audiences might react given Australia’s relationship with the monarchy, especially as it dramatises a moment at some point in the future — Elizabeth II’s death — which many believe will see Australia finally make its step away from the Commonwealth.

But the two actors think Australian audiences will be just as surprised and moved as UK audiences by this story of a family breakdown with global ramifications.

“I think a lot of people come to it expecting a spitting image — a satirical, mocking version of the royals,” Glaves says. “But then they’re knocked for six when they very quickly realise it’s a much more profound and human piece than just a piss-take.”

In fact, the actors cast aren’t close lookalikes to the royals: Righton doesn’t have the famous William bald patch (and is glad the director has decided not to give him one) but Glaves has dyed his natural blonde to a light red, closer to Harry’s colour.

The play features plenty of debate about good government and the role of the royal family, although it doesn’t take any particular position on the monarchy itself. But it raises some massive questions about the way England is ruled and its attitude towards the monarchy.

“If you start really thinking about the royal family and analysing what they are, it is ridiculous,” Righton says. “But in the same breath, in our country at least, I would hate to see them gone. And I can’t give you an answer as to why I want them to stay, but I do.”

Given the reception the play has received in London and on Broadway, it would seem well on the way towards becoming a modern classic. But it may face a significant obstacle in reaching that status when Queen Elizabeth passes away.

Both Glaves and Righton agree that it will probably off-limits for several years, at least in England where the play would almost certainly be considered “insensitive”.

“The lovely thing about being in this show is that no one leaves the show discussing anything other than this show,” Righton says. “It rouses emotion in everybody, and that’s what you want as an actor.”

Glaves agrees: “Some of them really hate the things that are being said in it. But nobody’s apathetic about this play.”

[box]King Charles III is at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney until April 30.

Featured image: Ben Righton and Richard Glaves, alongside Jennifer Bryden (Kate), Robert Powell (Charles) and Carolyn Pickles (Camilla). Photo by Prudence Upton.[/box]

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