Some unscientific thoughts on the screening of ‘King Charles III’

My PhD is about Shakespeare, verse drama, and whether poetic theatre can survive in the modern world. That means the number one text people want to talk to me about when I try to explain why I spend so much time counting syllables at parties is Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III. A political thriller written largely in pentameter, the play not only references characters and situations from Shakespeare’s plays but inevitably attracts linguistic comparisons — and much of its theatrical publicity material foregrounded the element of tribute in Bartlett’s writing, without calling it pastiche per se. That play has now been screened in an adapted version on British television, prompting much lively, engaged conversation on social media, and the following tweet from a fellow Shakespearean scholar:

Harry. I got this.

Without diving too deeply into the arguments of my thesis, one of its central problems has been the difficulty of making claims about how audiences today might perceive verse drama. Plays in verse are commissioned quite rarely — theatres are often scared of them, a point made even in the lead-up to King Charles III’s Almeida debut in 2014. I’ve read heaps of critical reviews lambasting theatres and playwrights for even trying this apparently outdated form. And that was before I started staging my own verse plays. So the online reaction to last night’s BBC screening provided me with a perfect opportunity. Three years into speculating wildly about how verse drama might play with contemporary audiences, I could see and analyse a range of responses in real time.

Anyone following me already may have noticed I posted a similar survey to the second during the programme — this got only 28 votes, hence the rephrased re-up. 50% were for better, 36% for worse, 14% for no impact. My maths is terrible, but having put myself in the position of having to inelegantly combine these two surveys, I make that

  • 68.75% for better
  • 17.24% for worse
  • 14% for no impact

For what it’s worth (maybe not much), that follows quite closely the trend of my larger sample. Perhaps the higher % voting ‘worse’ during the airing of the programme (at one point they were in the lead…) might indicate something about viewing habits: you’re more likely to come onto Twitter to see if everyone else is trash-talking something you’re not enjoying, rather than to praise it in mid-show.

Anyway — these are not, of course, definitive statistics, nor am I a statistician, and I fully admit to the large potential for a leading question: it’s hard to ask ‘Did you notice this play being in verse?’ without saying ‘This play is in verse’. The question itself — though I tried to phrase it as openly as possible, given that the hashtag responses suggested some confusion over verse as a term — clearly risks people overstating their own awareness out of a certain, justifiable cultural anxiety. To grossly paraphrase Ben Lerner, as a culture we know poetry is supposed to be important, even if we don’t often feel we want to engage with it.

But these responses, and the surrounding Twitter conversation can still tell us something really interesting, and I’m going to try to summarise what I learnt last night as succinctly as possible. Thanks, needless to say, are due to everyone who participated in my polls and commented on this play in any capacity, positive or negative. I’ll only make glancing references to the script itself — for which I have a lot of admiration, though somewhat tempered — in this post, and perhaps come back to its specifics later.

  • People like verse drama. Not everyone, and not unreservedly, but a lot of people. Seeing in print that nearly 69% of viewers — that’s 310 people — found their enjoyment of a show enhanced by its choice to use verse techniques is 100% thrilling to me as a researcher. It’s also not at all the impression you’d get from most broadsheet critics descriptions’ of verse plays, though King Charles III did surprise many of those writers.
  • People notice verse being spoken — but not consistently. A Shakespearean critic, George T Wright, argues that audiences recognise and listen out for metre in an embodied sense: ‘if the actors will keep the meter, our nervous systems can register the continuing metrical pattern.’ Responses to my first poll suggest how provisional this awareness is. Bartlett’s script contains many prose scenes, so on one level it’s natural for it to come and go. That 11% of respondents registered the pattern rarely or not at all — that’s 61 people — to my mind has implications for practice. Did the actors sometimes become too prosaic, too naturalistic in their delivery? And is ‘somewhat’ enough? My perspective was that some scenes conveyed the verse and its internal tensions brilliantly, and some sped through without much sense of structure. Many viewers might prefer that! But it’s a conversation worth having, with implications for Shakespeare too. If audiences are aware they’re listening to stylised, not naturalised speech, what benefits does that bring to dramatists, actors, directors? This might suggest poetry has more of a role in our lives than it’s given credit for — and its effects are there to be mined.

Stepping back from the surveys, I have a few quickfire observations drawn from the kind people who tweeted at me about their experience of hearing the verse, and those who I didn’t engage with directly but whose tweets gave me thought for food.

  • Some people bloody hated it. However, a scan of the critical attention the screening received suggests that many complaints were centred on the programme’s potential political implications rather than its aesthetic choices. People found the depiction of living royals distasteful, and there were a lot of criticisms from the perspective of respect for the monarchy. There was also a lot of generalised ‘This is shit’, ‘turned it off’ style responses which while themselves intriguing are hard to quantify as responses to the verse. But below are a few tweets which show the ways in which this language itself can and did rankle with modern audiences:

Ridiculous, pretentious, archaic, long-winded, boring — these are all critiques of verse drama familiar from the reviews I’ve studied, and I’m not at all dismissing them. Here I’ll just note that the deliberate use of somewhat stilted language, and some odd grammatical formations, in Bartlett’s script means it’s harder to defend against these claims — the text is in many ways far from contemporary, making it all the more surprising when it suddenly seems to speak more clearly ‘like us’.

  • A surprisingly large number of people evoked the BBC licence fee in their assessment of the show.

I can’t find some of the more aggressive anti-Beeb tweets I saw last night, but in a play about royal power, national stability and media regulation, this focus was compelling. Many people who found the programme disrespectful also slated the BBC; many who liked it praised the public funding model which allowed it to exist. I didn’t see any critiques of the licence in iambic pentameter — so far.

  • Verse and politics didn’t align in predictable ways. A good many people posting positively about the play had references to socialism, or to the Labour party, in their Twitter bios. This seems worth noting in light of the fact that 1) this was yet another play about Kings and Queens, and 2) that verse drama is often assumed to be a conservative, elitist throwback of a form. One thread on this topic is worth reading in its entirety: Helen pointed out that the royals’ verse might evoke ‘fading dignity’, but also be capable of a modernisation that might undermine that. I don’t want to traduce her points, so see for yourself! Mike Barlett’s own comments to the Radio Times, that he used verse ‘to find a voice that you can believe a King speaking in,’ might suggest the form itself is undemocratic — but some tweeters certainly found the form capable of expressing republican thoughts in this instance.
  • Finally, viewers offered some compelling thoughts on the effect of the verse — positive and negative. A brief summary won’t do justice to these conversations, but tweeters referenced formality, ceremony, gravitas and authority as among the form’s key contributions.

And some found that the use of metre introduced an air of detachment, which could be either desirable, too distancing, or somewhere in-between:

This has already spiralled far beyond the length of the provisional reflections I was aiming for, so I won’t go into the interesting implications of how many viewers reached immediately for Shakespeare as a positive or negative comparison to this piece, and reflected on Bartlett’s apparent pitch for modern-day Shakespearean status. I’ll only ask what’s lost by considering this the only relevant model (what if the same number of tweets were instead referencing Marlowe, Middleton, or House of Cards? Some did, of course!) I also don’t have space to engage more fully with the many serious and important critiques of the play’s style, and the varying political bases from which they emerge. My only thought on that score is: would a verse play in a more consistently contemporary language be received as poorly? Or is it the weird mix of archaic phrasing and modern context which particularly irritated these viewers?

Two tweets, for me, sum up why all of these conversations — including the three-year long one which is my thesis, nearing completion in September — are worth having.

Though he specifically thought pentameter had to be avoided, this is exactly the response T. S. Eliot imagined in his essay ‘Poetry and Drama’, and the reason he pursued his own (not particularly effective, in many ways) crusade for a modern poetic drama at all:

And secondly, this post, which throws many of the theoretical conversations academics, theatres and reviewers engage in with regard to the apparent elitism of verse drama (and Shakespeare) into sharp relief.

That’s all I have time for today, but I’d love to continue this conversation in the comments, on my own blog, — or the next time a 90-minute verse play is on national television at 9pm on a Wednesday night. Watch this space…