Mike Bartlett's King Charles III is a ‘future history play’ that speculates about events following the death of the reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, and the subsequent coronation of her son as King Charles. Drawing on the style and structure of a Shakespearean history play, it explores the people beneath the crowns, the unwritten rules of British democracy, and the conscience of the Royal Family.
It was first performed at the Almeida Theatre, London, on 3 April 2014. The production transferred to the West End's Wyndham's Theatre from 2 September 2014 for an initial three-month run, later announcing an extension to the end of January 2015.
The play is in five acts and is written in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameters, the form most commonly used by Shakespeare in his plays). It begins with a Prologue presenting the funeral procession of Queen Elizabeth II. Charles, as the new King, then holds his first weekly audience with the Prime Minister, principally discussing a new bill for statutory regulation of the press. The bill has already been passed by the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and is only awaiting Charles' royal assent to become law. Charles, however, is concerned that the law places excessive restrictions on the freedom of the press, and refuses to grant his assent. In a subplot, Prince Harry falls for Jess, an art student with republican convictions. Both Charles and Prince William are visited by the ghost of Princess Diana, who promises each that he will become 'the greatest king of all'. The Prime Minister holds a crisis meeting over the press bill with the Leader of the Opposition, and then threatens to pass a new law bypassing the royal assent. But Charles uses his royal prerogative to dissolve parliament. Protests break out across the country. Charles increases the armed guard at Buckingham Palace, offers his protection to Jess (whom the media have made the centre of a sex scandal) and agrees to Harry's wish to become a commoner. Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, presents a way forward: William should offer himself as a mediator between parliament and his father. When William announces this at a press conference without his father's knowledge and consent, Charles reacts angrily, seeing it as a betrayal; but ultimately the King finds himself forced to abdicate in favour of William, who will sign the press bill and restore the status quo between crown and parliament. The play concludes with Harry's rejection of Jess, and William and Kate's coronation.
The Almeida Theatre premiere was directed by Rupert Goold and designed by Tom Scutt. It was performed by Katie Brayben, Oliver Chris, Richard Goulding, Nyasha Hatendi, Adam James, Margot Leicester, Tim Pigott-Smith (as Charles), Tom Robertson, Nicholas Rowe, Nick Sampson, Tafline Steen, LydiaWilson, Anna-Helena McLean and Belinda Sykes.
The critical response to the play was very favourable. Charles Spencer in The Daily Telegraph called it 'the most spectacular, gripping and wickedly entertaining piece of lèse-majesté that British theatre has ever seen'. Dominic Maxwell in The Times declared that 'Theatre doesn’t get much better than this'. The critic for Time Out described it as 'a meaty, hilarious, dizzyingly audacious state of the nation political thriller'.
The play went on to win Best New Play at both the Critics' Circle Theatre Awards and the Olivier Awards. It also won South Bank Sky Arts Theatre Award.
In an essay included in the hardback edition of the play (Nick Hern Books, 2014), Mike Bartlett writes 'The idea for King Charles III arrived in my imagination with the form and the content very clear, and inextricably linked. ... An epic royal family drama, dealing with power and national constitution, was the content, and therefore the form had surely to be Shakespearean.'
Following its West End run, the play began a UK tour at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in September 2015 with Robert Powell in the role of Charles. The play transferred to Broadway for a limited engagement with the original London cast, running at the Music Box Theatre from 1 November 2015 until 31 January 2016, following previews from 10 October 2015.