11/05/2014 04:03 am ET Updated Nov 09, 2014

First Nighter: England Looks at Itself on London Stages

On the evidence alone of Mike Bartlett's volatile Cock and Bull, we know the playwright doesn't shrink from controversy. As a latest foray into chancy territory, he's screwed his chutzpah to the sticking post and written a Shakespearean gander at what might happen when Prince Charles, now 65 in real life, finally ascends to the throne.

Or almost does, which is what unfolds over the two acts of King Charles III, which has transferred from its triumphant Almeida bow to the West End's Wyndham's, with Tim Pigott-
Smith remaining as the monarch, although a motorbike accident has sidelined him until later this month.

In his stead, Miles Richardson, whom I saw, is giving a powerful performance as Charles, caught in a dramatic vortex that Bartlett has saucily cribbed from the Bard, most noticeably from Macbeth, Richard II and Richard III--and in iambic pentameter, which shouldn't be a turn-off for anyone.

Waiting for his coronation, Charles has his initial run-ins with Labor party Prime Minister Mr. Evans (Adam James). The controversial issue is a bill concerning a privacy condition that looks as if it will curb freedom of expression. Evans expects Charles to sign it pro forma, but Charles adamantly refuses and shortly dissolves Parliament, as is his legal right.

The extreme action causes civil strife, which sets several ruling factions against one another. Siding with Charles--who several times imagines seeing Princess Diana (Katie Brayben) as if representing Hamlet's ghost and Macbeth's three witches--are wife Camilla (Margot Leicester) and, for his own ambitious purposes, Tory party head Mr. Stevens (Nicholas Rowe).

Set against him are the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Oliver Chris, Lydia Wilson), whom Bartlett depicts as pragmatically conniving. Loose-cannoning around like the young Hal of Henry IV Part I is Harry (Richard Goulding), who's fallen for commoner Jess (Tafline Steen), a young woman determined not to get pulled into a monarchic existence.

It's an Elizabethan plot, all right, with power-mongering treachery rampant. Bartlett's Charles is, by Shakespearean definition, a tragic figure. This Charles isn't precisely the Duke of Wales we all know, the one not currently in great favor for his outspoken attitudes towards topics like modern architecture. This Charles is outspoken in a more commanding manner--and eventually brought low, Richard II-like, for his vaulting assumptions.

His inevitable downfall is laid out in several tough-minded scenes, the strongest of which is a confrontation with a Prince William shown as far more cunning than the William the world recognizes. At one moment when he flaunts his ambitions to become the crowned head before his natural time--with Kate as his queen--it's said of the couple that they are "the king and queen of column inches."

Bartlett's surging iambs are full of that kind of smart talk, at times echoing Peter Morgan's The Audience, with its fictionalized weekly monarch-P. M. sessions. At other times, King Charles III summons memories of Barbara Garson's hilarious '60s satire, Macbird..

Directed by Rupert Goold, who knows how to shake any cobwebs from Will's canon, and designed with austerity by Tom Scutt (duplicating the Almeida's rounded brick back wall), Bartlett's work offers the actors a text into which they can greedily sink their teeth. Not a one of them fails to take full advantage.

What Bartlett is really after is a reexamination of the monarchy and its effects on a society and culture. He sees, and isn't encouraged by, an ultimate longing for the status quo. He couldn't have gone about his exploration more adventurously.
Richard Bean--author of the huggable One Man, Two Guvnors (cribbed with eyes twinkling from Goldoni's Servant of Two Masters)--snatches his satire Great Britain, at Haymarket, from the headlines, and this time he's not winking, he's snarling.

He's committing an in-your-face shoving of the long News of the World/phone hacking episode at eager patrons. As he constructs his indictment, however, he doesn't stop there. Calling his remorseless fictional establishment The Free Press (a bit too on-the-nose, wouldn't you say?), he introduces Paige Britain (Lucy Punch) as the motivating force behind the paper's scandalous manufacture of scandals.

Before the phone hacking comes completely to light, Paige goes after a man whose twin daughters have disappeared (a reference to Milly Dowler, the impetus behind the News of the World's shuttering) with enough misplaced zeal to get the man arrested and imprisoned--where no good comes to him. Furthermore, she stalks her man with the help of malleable boyfriend Assistant Police Commissioner Donald Doyle Davidson (Ben Mansfield). Will the twins turn up is a question audience members wrangle with, but the answer won't be supplied here.

To make Bean's relentless case that nothing but corruption operates in today's England and that some participants are only slightly less corrupt than others, he includes a large complement of characters, one of the most vicious in public relations. She's Clarissa Kingston-Mills (Harriet Thorpe), whose specialty is selling gossip she's picked up. And yes, there's the inevitable Rebekah Brooks figure in Virginia White (Jo Dockery), whose surname is a giveaway to how she comes out in the end.

Nicholas Hytner directs the play--apparently written and rehearsed in strict seclusion so that its presence wouldn't influence the recent trials--with his expected expertise. What that means this time is he keeps together a two-act work that goes on longer that it needs to and isn't always as funny as it thinks it is. Perhaps this is because Bean just couldn't stem his vitriol. Set designer Tim Hatley and video designer 59 Productions assist at keeping thing running slickly with gliding walls that often have mock news footage projected on them.
The inspiration behind director Phyllida Lloyd's all-female William Shakespeare production is that prison inmates are performing them. In other words, what's on view isn't women pretending to be men but a group of women taking on male roles.

With the formidable Harriet Walter assuming a leading role, Lloyd offered Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse two years ago. Now she's taken on Henry IV Parts I and II as a compacted Henry IV, and if anything it's even more successful than the previous go at the Bard.

This one is so spanking smart that I'll go so far as to say parts of it are as good or better than most treatments of the plays I've seen. Certainly, Walters's delivery of Henry IV's speech about an inability to sleep due to his throne-seizing from Richard II is superb, as is the deathbed realization that reprobate son Hal (Clare Dunne, outstanding in her right) has entirely reformed. Ashley McGuire as Falstaff scores heavily with the speech in which she considers honor and dismisses it. Also shining in a completely accomplished cast are Jade Anouka as Hotspur, Cynthia Erivo as Poins and the Earl of Douglas and the especially incandescent Ann Ogbomo as Worcester.

In trimming the two plays to one two-hour intermissionless play, much has been left out--not a sign of Doll Tearsheet anywhere and less action in the down-market tavern Mistress Quickly (Zainab Hasan) runs. On the other hand, designer Ellen Nabarro has spared little expense transforming the venue (after Bunny Christie's original designs) into a heavy lock-down prison environment, even if this time Lloyd keeps depiction of the daily prison routine minimal.

Still, Lloyd's achievement is so strong that she makes a spectator yearn to see which of the canon she takes on next.