‘King Charles III’ puts British monarchy onstage


By Jill Lawless, AP

LONDON–A new play about Britain’s future king is getting rave reviews. Once it would have been theatrical treason.

“King Charles III” imagines the current heir, Prince Charles, taking the throne, with catastrophic results.

Just a few decades ago, depictions of living British monarchs were banned from the country’s stages. Even in 2014, Mike Bartlett’s drama is drawing strong reactions.

Daily Mail critic Quentin Letts said the play “seems anxious to provoke a serious row” and accused it of coming close to defamation. The paper headlined his story “So could King Charles III be deposed by scheming Kate?”

Yet most of Britain’s newspapers applauded the play Friday.

“Bold, brilliant and unstoppably entertaining,” said Dominic Maxwell in The Times of London. Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph found it “spectacular, gripping … moving as well as funny,” while Financial Times critic Sarah Hemming called it “scintillating and audacious.”

Bartlett”s “future history play” — running at London’s Almeida Theatre — imagines the new king, uncertain of his powers and moved by his conscience, refusing to sign a new law restricting press freedom. The British monarch must give royal assent to all legislation, although the signature has long been considered a formality.

The play asks: What if a sovereign decided to put Britain’s tradition-heavy, partly unwritten constitution to the test?

Onstage, the stakes quickly get high. Soon there’s a tank outside Buckingham Palace and chaos in the streets.

It’s a dramatic scenario that would have been impossible few decades ago.

Until 1968, an official called the Lord Chamberlain had the power to censor plays appearing in British theaters — and depictions of reigning monarchs were forbidden. Previous kings and queens were permitted, as long as they were at least three generations in the past. In the 1950s, the Lord Chamberlain regularly banned depictions of Queen Victoria, who had died half a century earlier.

Things loosened up in the 1960s, and since then Britons have grown steadily less deferential — helped along by the 1990s’ scandals and divorces of Queen Elizabeth II’s children, including Charles from Princess Diana.

Change came to the theater with “A Question of Attribution,” a 1988 play by Alan Bennett about Anthony Blunt, who was the queen’s personal art adviser — and a Soviet spy. Prunella Scales played the monarch, never referred to by name, as perceptive and intelligent.

“That made such a difference,” said John Snelson, a publications editor at the Royal Opera House and a stage historian. “Since then, of course, who hasn’t played her?”