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Off with their heads? A future monarch stirs up the London stage in 'King Charles III'

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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 theatres — 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 loosed 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 theatre 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?"

Helen Mirren has made a mini-career of monarchy, playing Elizabeth II on screen in the Oscar-winning film "The Queen" and onstage in Peter Morgan's "The Audience," which depicted the monarch as voice of reason across a series of sometimes impetuous prime ministers.

Moira Buffini's play "Handbagged," currently running in London's West End, dramatizes Elizabeth II's testy relationship with Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Both those plays are affectionate portrayals of the much-loved monarch. "King Charles III" presents a more ambiguous ruler and asks unsettling questions.

Bartlett's script is in quasi-Shakespearean blank verse, and Rupert Goold stages it with a strong sense of pageantry. Charles has echoes of Shakespeare's dithering royals, Hamlet and Macbeth, as well as of the anguished King Lear.

Tim Pigott-Smith captures Charles' mannerisms and plausibly suggests his complex inner life. He's surrounded by the smooth, affable Prince William, the steely Kate and the carousing Harry, longing to break free from his gilded cage. There is even the ghost of his ex-wife — the late Princess Diana — to haunt the proceedings.

Snelson thinks there are still taboos around depicting the royal family onstage. Sex, he said, is still "a very uncomfortable area with royalty."

But he's confident playwrights will keep returning to the topic. The drama of a private individual who is also a symbol of the state makes royalty an irresistible subject.

"Monarchs are not just a breed," Snelson said. "It's very much to do with how the individual relates to the role. That's where the drama comes through. Can they hack it?"


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