King Charles III, Almeida Theatre

KC3-3894-web-Cast-of-King-Charles-III-by-Johan-Persson

Originally written for Exeunt.

It is apt that King Charles III, Mike Bartlett’s brilliantly ambitious “future history play”, is opening in a week that has seen newspapers plastered with photographs of the Royal Family. As William, Kate and baby George embark on a tour of New Zealand, the media fascination would suggest that the monarchy is far from unwanted. If anything, their stock is up. But does the ceremonial head of state really have any role to play in how we define ourselves as a nation in the twenty first century? Or is monarchy today nothing more than a brand, with Wills and Kate as its glossy poster boy and girl?

It is these questions, and a wide assortment of others, that King Charles III thoughtfully and entertainingly poses. The play opens in the near future, at the funeral of the long-reigning Queen. After a lifetime of waiting in the wings, Charles is finally out of his mother’s shadow and thrust into the glare of the spotlight. But while, as he puts it, “potential holds appeal”, the long-awaited throne is a formidable prospect. Barely hours into the job, Bartlett has the tragic figure of Tim Piggot-Smith’s stubborn Charles take issue with a privacy bill that lands on his desk for royal assent, refusing to sign as a matter of conscience. With the wavering of a pen, a whole nation is suspended in uncertainty, poised between the collapse of Parliament and the overthrow of the monarchy.

Bartlett’s deliciously smart invention is as much about our theatrical heritage as it is about the threatened traditions of monarchy. Taking Shakespeare’s histories as its model, the play’s form is wrapped up in the same contradiction as our Janus-like nation: both new and old, looking backwards and forwards at the same time. His script is a witty amalgam of Shakespearean rhythms and sharp modern colloquialisms, threaded with light allusions to some of the Bard’s greatest hits. We get unyielding royal ambition, a free-spirited, Hal-esque Prince Harry in the form of Richard Goulding (who just wants to live like common people), and a Kate (Lydia Wilson) whose backroom manoeuvring has more than a hint of Lady Macbeth – even if her weapon of choice is more Dolce and Gabbana than sharpened dagger.

Rupert Goold’s assured production is cast in the same mould, delicately attuned to its Shakespearean echoes. History is subtly inscribed on Tom Scutt’s simple set, which marries candles, a wide dais decked in plush maroon carpet, and a fading mural of faces that hugs the exposed brickwork of the Almeida’s curving back wall. The figures who anxiously pace under the glare of these painted eyes have all the poise of Shakespearean heroes and the polish of modern politicians, flitting with ease between elegant blank verse and slick press conference spin. And there’s a glorious bit of Bard spoofing (and Daily Express baiting) with the ghostly appearance of a black-shrouded Diana, a contrivance that is both utterly ridiculous and absolutely faithful to the logic of Bartlett and Goold’s chosen form.

It’s often said that retellings of history reveal more about the time they emerge from than the era in which they are set; the same can be claimed for visions of the future, which have a habit of reflecting contemporary anxieties. Perhaps, then, Bartlett has found the perfect form for grappling with some of the doubts clouding our immediate national horizon. With the referendum for Scottish independence looming, British identity is suddenly up for grabs, and with it the whole hodgepodge of tradition that makes up our national character. King Charles III might not offer any answers, but it’s a compelling start to a fresh national conversation about monarchy, democracy and that most elusive and problematic of qualities – Britishness.

Photo: Johan Persson.

Medea, Richmond Theatre

In a modern society supposedly desensitised to blood and horror, the grim tale of Medea might just be one of the last taboos. Apart from perhaps Oedipus, whose plight has been largely subsumed into Freudian psychoanalysis, it is this vengeful murderess and her infamous crime of infanticide who holds the greatest sway on the modern imagination of all the protagonists of Greek tragedy.

Passed down through adaptation upon adaptation, this latest version by Mike Bartlett and Headlong sees her transplanted to the unlikely location of a British housing estate. The chorus become gossiping neighbours and work colleagues, all nosily observing the collapse of Medea’s family as philandering husband Jason prepares to marry Kate, the young daughter of his landlord, while Medea and her son Tom co-exist in a silent state of grief.

Bartlett’s conflicted updating of Euripides’ tragedy is myth as simulacra – all surface and no depth. His approach opts for naturalism with a hard, plastic edge, drawing attention to its own fakery, while everywhere the artificial and the shallow loudly dominate. Medea’s “friends” keep up the appearance of concern while pursuing their own interests and desires; the dissatisfied next door neighbours make relentless home improvements; Jason and Medea’s silent, ghost-like son might as well be the symbol of a child.

Nowhere is this sense of the superficial facade more unsettlingly conveyed than in Ruari Murchison’s pop-art doll’s house of a set, which conceals four boxed-in rooms behind screens displaying the pointedly flat exterior of Jason and Medea’s house. These contained domestic spaces are disturbingly neat, pretty and precarious, a fitting microcosm of the identical houses and manicured lawns that fill the sterile, hermetically sealed suburbia outside. Like the chilling rows of perfectly pastel homes in Edward Scissorhands – far more frightening than Johnny Depp’s razor digits or shock of black hair – the production evokes a stifling suburban ennui in which Rachael Stirling’s restless, raging Medea writhes like a flame-haired Fury.

What Bartlett is attempting to demonstrate through this shiny, brittle aesthetic, however, never becomes fully clear. Is the unapologetic flatness of both design and performances a comment on the superficial emptiness of modern life? If so, how does that emptiness resonate with the tale that Bartlett is reworking? There is a straining tension at the heart of this updated adaptation, but it is a damaging rather than a productive antagonism. Alongside the contrast of ancient and modern, the production frequently finds itself torn between opposing camps: misogyny versus the plight of women, psychological damage versus seemingly unexplained madness, logic versus magic, religious faith versus the empty realisation that all we have is “life and death and the waiting in between”.

In clumsily negotiating between the ancient and the contemporary, Bartlett’s version finally comes down on the former. Abandoning the lacklustre attempt at psychological exploration that lightly peppers the piece, in the end his Medea is faithfully vicious and unrepentant. As she stands at the play’s close dripping with blood and triumph, Euripides’ starkly uncompromising vision of a woman prepared to go to any lengths for revenge emerges unscathed from the wreckage of this muddled attempt at wrenching her into the modern day.

Boys, Soho Theatre

Watching as a recent graduate, Ella Hickson’s latest play is both mildly terrifying and depressingly familiar. Her broken, desperately partying characters painfully evoke the rabbit-in-the-headlights panic of confronting life after university, while Chloe Lamford’s precisely detailed design, right down to the cupboard handles (though thankfully excluding the mess), is almost a carbon copy of my own student kitchen. Coupled with the frantic, competitive drinking and the forced irony of fancy dress, Boys induces a heavy and slightly uncomfortable sense of déjà vu. I’ve been here before.

Hickson’s play comes underscored with a quiet cry of “we’re fucked”. Her graduating students, Benny and Mack, are about to go out into a world that doesn’t want or care about them, leaving a childhood that has promised them everything to enter an adult life that will most likely deliver nothing. Meanwhile, one of their housemates, Cam, freaks out in the face of a concert that could change his life, and the other, Timp, stands as a cautionary example of the monotony of getting stuck in a dead-end job. It’s the boys’ last night together before they must all move out and there’s only one thing they’re certain about: they are going to have one hell of a party.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of Hickson’s characters want to grow up. From eternally partying Timp, about to enter his thirties with the mentality of an eighteen-year-old, appropriately dressed as Peter Pan, to the students in denial about their swiftly approaching graduation, there is a stunted, childlike atmosphere to this world. It is not insignificant that the fancy dress theme they choose for their end-of-year party is Disney. Nostalgia taints everything in this backward-looking environment, because the future is just too scary; everyone has their heads buried in the sandpit.

While they put off tomorrow, the boys’ riotous embracing of today is frequently hilarious. Once again the déjà vu attacks, as Hickson perceptively captures the banter and bravado of student dialogue, nailing every last reference and successfully distilling that youthful cocktail of forced confidence and crippling insecurity. These contradictory elements both surface too in the utterly convincing performances of the young cast, who paste over fragility with indifference and play wasted with slurring commitment. Much as he did with Headlong’s strikingly youthful Romeo and Juliet, director Robert Icke injects proceedings with an espresso shot of energy, as the youngsters dance on the table and aggressively knock back drinks.

This edges close to a Skins-esque view of “yoof”, all pints, pills and parties, but Hickson is too clever to pigeon-hole her young characters in the same way that the media is so often guilty of. Beneath the bloodshot eyes and strained façades, tenderness blinks through, while the crude harshness of male banter is softened slightly by the presence of Timp’s chatterbox girlfriend Laura and guarded, delicate Sophie, the ex-girlfriend of Benny’s brother. Benny, whose wounds are closest to the surface, feels the need to fix things – perhaps a reaction to his own brokenness, poignantly conveyed by Danny Kirrane. This is set in opposition to Samuel Edward Cook’s tough guy Mack, who aggressively insists that we are all responsible for ourselves and no one else in a particularly unappealing portrait of staunch individualism.

Through such relationships, Hickson grapples with a wide collection of ideas, some with more success than others. The central nugget is this rage at a world in which the future of the generation now graduating is uncertain at best and stark at worst, but plenty more is going on here. The young characters question what it means to be successful, what the purpose of knowledge is, whether we are responsible for others, if it is still possible to have faith in anything. There is a sense of searching, though this can turn into clumsy fumbling. The scope is to be admired, but sometimes the execution is crude and clunky, increasingly so in the meandering second half as external riots intrude into this claustrophobic pressure cooker. Hickson stalls and starts up again, offering what feel like dramatic conclusions before ploughing on, and eventually soothing the sting of her message with sentimental catharsis.

Hickson’s metaphors, like her plot, start out arresting but end up overdone. The pile-up of rubbish bags caused by local strikes (yet another situation familiar to me from my own student days) becomes a repeated symbol of the trash mounted up by previous generations that is now beginning to rot and fester, asking questions about how we clear it up. Do we simply follow suit and dump our mess on others – the “inalienable right to dump your shit on someone else”, as Mack sneeringly puts it – or must we keep it inside with us and let it poison the air we breathe? This returns to the debate between Benny and Mack about responsibility, but is pushed beyond resonant, underlying significance into the glaringly obvious, until the whole kitchen is swamped in rubbish. By the time the characters eventually set about cleaning up, the symbolism has lost all potency through heavy-handed repetition.

While the conclusion may collapse into sentimentality, it is fitting that there are no easy solutions or resolutions offered in the face of a hostile world that the boys are reluctant to enter and approach with a sigh of apathy. Echoes of Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love can be heard in the youngsters’ resigned recognition that they will never achieve or earn as much as their parents, while the laboured metaphor of the ever increasing rubbish repeats the idea that this generation did not create the mess we are now having to clean up. I was also reminded of another Bartlett line, this time from Earthquakes in London: “bad things are happening, let’s bury our heads in the sand”. This is certainly the mentality of Hickson’s characters, who are only briefly able to look their own bleak future in the eye before returning their gaze to the immediate debris.

Reflecting at a slight distance, it occurs to me that while the ending falters, this might just be somehow appropriate, if disappointing. Hickson writes herself into a situation that is difficult to conclude; the generation she writes about (which just happens to be my generation) is finding it equally difficult to envision where we might end up. Not an intentional symmetry, but a strangely apt one. Conclusions are not forthcoming in either case. Perhaps being young is, in Cam’s words, “as good as it ever fucking gets”.  And in today’s world, that is possibly the most depressing idea of all.