Of cabbages and kings

I entered King Charles III (Sydney Theatre Company, 3–30 April) with some excitement: speculative fiction is hardly a common trope in the rather conservative art of theatre, and as a staunch republican I encourage any form of media which allows us to think of the royal family in historical rather than the ubiquitous tabloid personal terms. I refer the reader to my good friend Hegel who wrote that despite what we may think of the royals’ personalities: ‘No man is a hero to his valet de chamber … but not because the former is no hero, but because the latter is a valet.’ No matter what our relation to the royal family is, under their reign we remain subjects and little else.

Hegel’s cynical perspective would find little untoward in King Charles III, a play which has captured the English-speaking world by storm. The plot goes that the yet-to-be-crowned Charles, overcome by his conscience in opposition to a draconian anti-privacy law pushed through by the barnstorming Labour Prime Minister (a Scot and a republican!), decides to break centuries of protocol and refuse to grant the bill his signature, thereby plunging Britain into a political and constitutional crisis. Having put himself and the monarchy in an untenable position, Charles is publicly undermined by William, encouraged by Kate, and is eventually forced to resign as William and Kate are jointly crowned in his stead. Charles’ noble idealism is opposed to the faux-populism of Wills and Kate, whose adroit political manoeuvring allows them to secure the legitimacy of the royal family once more.

In presentation alone, the play is fairly strong, and this review has little to comment on the effective technical production of the show. Yet as far as the narrative is concerned, to my continual disappointment, it never amounts to much and is altogether rather trivial. One could easily have pieced together such a narrative from the gossip pages of ‘women’s’ magazines (the kind with the exclamation marks in their titles), so little do the characters differ from their real-life caricatures: Charles is noble but dull and out of touch; Camilla is zealously supportive of her husband and his newfound power; Harry is sweet to the point of being dopey; William is a born king but lacks nerve; Kate is elegant but clever and pushes William to become ‘the man he was supposed to be’. As time went on, I struggled to withdraw from the sense that this merely represents a royal fan fiction taken to the stage, complete with pseudo-Shakespearean blank verse. Take this paragraph from playwright Mike Bartlett in the program:

The idea for King Charles III arrived in my imagination with the form and content very clear, and inextricably linked. It would be a play about the moment Charles takes the throne, and how his conscience would lead him to refuse to sign a bill into law. An epic royal family drama, dealing with power and national constitution, was the content, and therefore the form had surely to be Shakespearean.

In writing the play this way, Bartlett makes a key error in confusing the form of Shakespearean political drama – all kings, queens and (dis)loyal advisers – with its function – the depiction of politics. The nature and subject of art and politics have changed throughout the centuries: not only do the forms of art change but also their content. As argued by Hungarian Marxist György Lukács, one of the aims of contemporary literature is to capture past moments and rearticulate their essence in new ways, into new art forms. Where Lukács was attempting to redeem eighteenth century bourgeois heroism in the age of mass societies – essentially creating western Marxism as we know it – he recognised that their transformative value would have to adjust to newer contexts of twentieth century capitalism.

What King Charles III tries to do is in some sense far more radical and conservative than updating old bourgeois values. It attempts to anachronistically apply the form of Shakespearean drama to contemporary social struggles, not merely of the royal family but that of journalism, privacy and ultimately democracy, in an effort to re-foreground past forms – in this case, Shakespearean political drama – in the present. Adapting Shakespeare to contemporary times is an old trope within English literature and as humans we do tend to tell the same story over and over again. 10 Things I Hate About You, India’s Haider and the HSC-disapproved O are all indicative of the various interpretations that Shakespearean literature can inspire. Some are brilliant, some are derivative and others are beneath contempt.

What is different in Bartlett’s interpretation is that he does not merely reframe a Shakespearean character drama with a contemporary background, in an attempt to demonstrate the timelessness of the human condition. He does rather the opposite: he takes contemporary social struggles and applies to them the context of an aristocratic political drama. While obviously a conceit, it is also quite a sweeping statement, brushing aside two hundred years of mass democracy within the United Kingdom in the name of pursuing the private dramas and ambitions of Britain’s elites.

The play’s relationship with democracy is important, because it forms the greater theme for the entire play, and the spirit of Charles’ sacrifice. At one point he is notably enthused by the ruckus he has caused in the streets – as if to say ‘this is what democracy looks like’. Democracy’s appearance as a reactive literary device rather than a proactive engagement with the characters is here not coincidental. As I have previously argued, democracy in the UK in its institutional form is utterly disconnected from the lived reality of Britain. The 2015 election was the most unfair election result in the history of free elections. Freedom of the press – as the play does argue – is utterly wasted upon the infamous British tabloid media. The malaise that has grabbed onto Britain is merely attributed to post-industrial decline with a passing reference to Thatcher. The epoch-defining austerity of Cameron and Osborne is magicked away, as if it were a passing storm which eventually faded. The takeaway from King Charles III is that ‘this is what politics looks like for white people’.

We could be more generous to Bartlett and argue that the royal interplay is merely a foreground for the much greater background conflict in civil society, over the nature of privacy, the role of the media and the political engagement of everyday citizens. It is just that we are focusing on the royals, while society is the real battleground. It is after all the Prime Minister, a Labour one even, who sets the stage for the conflict to arise through his firm commitment towards democracy. But this is entirely the premise which makes King Charles III such a ludicrous, detached concept. Its depiction of Britain’s polity and society are so laughably idealised that it makes The West Wing seem like gritty social realism. Precisely where does this Scottish Labour Prime Minister appear from? They only have one MP left after 2015. How would the Conservatives ever elect such an overt nancy boy as Leader of the Opposition? They are well aware of their image as the ‘Nasty Party’ and have elected far younger and more populist candidates such as David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson precisely as a reaction against the camp-for-laughs portrayal here. How was not Britain’s EU or Scotland status mentioned at all, as something which just might affect the King and how he reigns? Why were there no significant republican protests – in the UK but also Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc. – before Charles’ excessive political power play of proroguing parliament? The political references throughout the narrative all blur into a kind of pre-Blairite morality play, as form of ‘what-if’ story of the 1990s, not an actual tale about contemporary (let alone future) Britain.

It might sound petulant to demand so much out of one play, particularly one which is more about the royal family than about British politics. Indeed, one could argue that a play cannot be expected to keep abreast of all political developments after it was written. Yet such a perspective runs contrary to the entire purpose of speculative fiction and is indicative of precisely what King Charles III was lacking. Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno, in a famous excoriation of Lukács, who in his later days came to defend the more Stalinist interpretations of socialist realism, argued that art’s true, subversive purpose lay not in depicting reality as it is, but what is otherwise incapable of depiction except through art. Only by using art’s particular lens can we reveal truths about the world, how it is, and how it might yet be. The viewer leaves this play knowing no more than when they entered. Indeed one leaves knowing less, having had their political imagination stripped from them.

It might seem strange to so vociferously criticise the play in this manner: after all, who expects ‘reality’ from the royal family to begin with? Isn’t imagining the reign – no matter how short-lived – of Prince Charles as King Charles, third of his name, only a fantasy to begin with? Or conversely, is it not worthwhile to imagine these figures within a historical context? We draw upon what we know, and the royal family has endured when many other movements and institutions have not. The problem is that the play explicitly draws these connections together, of monarchy, democracy and society. It is particularly overt in what is easily the play’s most contrived scene, in which Harry has an epiphany upon hearing about the problems of the modern UK from a kebab van worker. This working class savant literally carves up the United Kingdom in an extended metaphor to project the UK’s lacking national identity (‘no Empire, no manufacturing sector’), one which it is heavily implied that the royals should reclaim the mantel to defend. Never mind that great parts of that identity were destroyed through the active class warfare of successive national governments. Never mind that significant chunks of this British identity revolve around centuries of imperialism, slave trading and mass murder. Instead, the play is redolent with what Owen Hatherley has termed ‘austerity-nostalgia’, full of a time where Britain Did Things and Brave Men Could Lead (without mentioning the obvious corollary of British Empire), as if austerity Britain’s chief social issue is a lack of national pride.

It is in Harry that the play’s ideology makes itself fully known. Its treatment of Harry is all too naive in its attempt to make him the everyman of the story. We suffer the conceit that a man who has travelled extensively around the world and served in the British Army had genuinely not understood the concept of Burger King. As if a lad who even in the play regularly goes to bars and clubs has never quite tasted a £2 burger. Yet it is necessary to strip the real-life Harry down so that we can be force-fed the canard that ‘if only the elite could be more like us, then they might understand.’ And sure, in the age of ‘rich kids of Tumblr’, one might be convinced that the rich are increasingly detached from the lives of the masses, but today’s ruling elite are desperate to demonstrate their commonality with us. Indeed the entirety of Harry’s arc, in which he falls in love with middle-class arts student Jess (how zany!), suggests an entirely vampiric relation to commoners: royalty should mix with ‘those folk’ to better commit towards their own duty. Even the little victory of Harry’s decision to shed his royal upbringing to pursue a ‘regular life’ with all of its trials and tribulations is not allowed, with him inexplicably shunning his genuinely caring girlfriend despite the significant public humiliation she suffers as a result of their relationship. Harry’s surrender to the life he was born into is all too meaningful for the cheap capitulation that it is.

In this sense it confirms the utterly cynical nature of William and Kate’s power play and the false nature of their hackneyed populism, something which, to his credit, Charles impugns with his last jab of royal authority. Ultimately, as intended, Charles is the tragic hero because he is unable to effectively stick to his class role, something which William and Kate actively pursue. The latter’s role is cast in a particularly transparent feminist twist, with Kate sicking her husband on the King like a bad audition for Lady Macbeth. This is perhaps the one truth that the play does reveal: if the royal family did not share this Hegelian disdain for the masses, if they do not continually maintain a class consciousness, they’ll soon find themselves cast by the wayside.

Some of the criticism for King Charles III should be reserved for the media, who have taken to this entirely farcical pseudo-political conflict like a duck to water. One should expect more of a play than the fact it is ‘topical’. Behind the seemingly-relevant subject matter and the pleasantly liberal themes it evokes, the play actually espouses a fairly radical disdain for actually-existing democracy, not the kind that the media claim to speak for. Insofar as King Charles III is concerned, the suffering of commoners is as negligible as it is constant. I suppose this should count as value for money: never before has the royal family been quite as effectively portrayed.


Image: Sydney Theatre Company

If you liked this article, please subscribe or donate.

Angus Reoch

Angus Reoch is now a Canberra-based writer who actually likes his new home.

More by Angus Reoch ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays