Sunday, 14 May 2017

Review of King Charles III on BBC2

I watched ‘King Charles III’ on BBC2 this week, written by Mike Bartlett and immediately saw the problem : the quality of the original material, a West End stage play. Do most modern London stage plays merit transfer to the nation via the small screen, even if they are awarded West End critics’ prizes? This has to be carefully judged.

The play conceives a few months after the Queen has died. Charles III is asked to sign away the freedom of the press and refuses, under pressure from an extreme left wing Prime Minister and Cabinet. The rest of the Royal family turn on him and bring him down. The Duchess of Cambridge turns into a version of Lady Macbeth with her own selfish agenda, apart from her husband's. King William is crowned instead of his father.

I am not going to discuss the question of taste in ‘Charles III’ but its serious artistic flaws, which made this play a poor choice for TV, and the nation. Here are my key issues:

  • The basic concept was flawed. The dramatist clearly aspired to write a Shakespearean drama in iambic pentameter (blank verse) which requires a command of the English language far beyond that of any living poet-playwright 
  • The storyline of many of Shakespeare’s plays is ‘The killing of an anointed king’. To fit the bill and hold attention, the writer used (without their consent) the current Royal family, with their real names, and to do this, he had to warp their characters. 
  • Shakespeare’s ‘Killing of the King’ story requires the King to be seriously immoral or otherwise inadequate, to create the plot’s psychological tension and to justify the conspirators carrying out a deeply treacherous act. 
  • The concept of ‘kingship’ in Shakespeare is part of God’s provision for the country’s stability, laws, continuity, peace and people. Hence, the key tension in Shakespearean drama is based on the sense that the killing of an anointed King is an act of sinful rebellion against God and the universal, moral order (which has consequences in man, and nature). The bringing down of an innocent king is the activity of occult powers (e.g. Macbeth murdering Duncan). These were central concepts in the 16th century and they are not entirely without all meaning, today. 
  • Shakespeare sets up the plot’s tension and conflict through first fracturing the character of the anointed King e.g. the King is already senile (Lear), a Scottish noble is already under of the sway a mentally ill wife (Macbeth), a group of disgruntled and envious friends already suspect the  leader is about to become a crowned tyrant (Julius Caesar), a man already in ‘the winter of his discontent’ with what life has delivered for him (Richard III) or a negligent ruler has already turned England into untended garden, rank with weeds, while he spends his time with his lover (Richard II). The key point is that the fractured character is already there, at the start. 
  • The weakness of the imagined plot of ‘King Charles III’ is that the central character has not been sufficiently ‘fractured’. He displays none of these traits: he has not been tested as constitutional a monarch, having just ascended the throne, a situation which the British people would be aware of. Therefore, the necessary Shakespearean narrative tension and conflict are entirely missing. This gap necessitates the use of an extreme left wing Prime Minister and (unified) Cabinet to force on the King an issue which is clearly immoral and wrong : the suppression of the freedom of the Press. 
  • At this point, the plot of ‘King Charles III’ completely falls apart because the central character is well-intending but soon surrounded by wolf-like conspirators pursuing a clearly wrong agenda, for which the audience has no sympathy, even if a debased, unenlightened ‘democracy’ is at stake. 
  • Morality is drained from the plot by being hopelessly muddled. In 'story', good must win over evil or end in the defeat of both sides (tragedy). Without morality, the plot collapses. 
In addition, drama must mimic life if it wants to seem credible and relevant. If the fictitious ‘King Charles’ had stood his ground against the destruction of the freedom of the Press, the people of this country would rise, as they have in effect since this play was first performed in 2014, against the artistic and political elite. Together, the press and the people would have brought down the Prime Minister, avoiding the laughable spectacle of the King appearing like Charles 1st, in the Chamber of the House of Commons in person, to dissolve Parliament. In others words, to make this faulty plot ‘work’, the writer had to completely erase the people of this country.

 Who can believe it? Surely not the national TV audience, who are the people of this country as opposed to well-heeled, who originally paid to watch the play in 2014 in the West End? The people think: “Surely this story is set in some tyrannous country, not in our celebrated island, known for its liberty and free speech?”. But no: the play’s setting is in Britain, now. This is laughable and the imagined truth lies in tatters.

The real irony is that, in spite of the suppression of the press leading to the abdication of this ‘King’ which is the heart of the plot’s weak rationale, the BBC and its chosen writer itself took every advantage of this freedom of the press to present living people, attributing to them malign or unwise motivations without providing background evidence, knowing they cannot respond. The people of this country are largely supportive of monarchy and they despise such things, even if they clearly recognise that they are coming from BBC's now ‘Planet Weird’.

Does the BBC no longer recognises what dramatic art is, nor how it can deliver it? As the Bard would say: what a falling off is here. The music used throughout, a kind of black choral mass work, was in Latin. This was entirely out of touch, even if the choir was meant to be a Greek chorus. This is not the style of music of Royalty, or Westminster Abbey, or even of this country. The BBC director may have been trying to create a 'medieval' atmosphere denoting darkening tyranny, but a British audience cannot understand a Greek chorus in Latin - and more’s the pity, since a good classical education is exactly what people need to write proper drama. It was meaningless.

Happily, an understanding of dramatic ‘art’ is not dead : it still flourishes (sometimes) on ITV. One only has to compare ‘King Charles III’ with ITV’s ‘The Durrells’ (under Christopher Hall, son of director Peter Hall) which, though equally fantastical in its plot, makes us suspend belief for an hour to enjoy its well-constructed, uplifting, tight story, its characters and even exotic wildlife, on Corfu.

The British people expect reasonably credible fictitious entertainment. Millions of isolated elderly deserve to feel ‘connected’ to recognisable ideas. Instead, many feel alienated that they are subsidising artistic failure, and even worse. If public funding for BBC drama stopped, artistic standards would rise again via the sharp tooth of competition. Shakespeare’s enduring masterpieces of dramatic art were not subsidised by the public purse and their effect was marvellous.

1 comment:

  1. I do enjoy your reviews and you had a very pertinent analysis of Shakespeare's plots. Keep at it.