Not since 1605 has Guy Fawkes night brought the British government so close to destruction than on this past November 5.* Parliament was dissolved. The monarchy was threatened. The United Kingdom lay on the verge of total collapse. At least, that is the reality that played out on the Music Box Theatre stage in Mike Bartlett’s latest, engrossing “future history play” King Charles III. By all accounts, King Charles III should never work. Evoking Shakespearian eloquence through the use of blank verse, King Charles III is part spoof and part political drama with several, not so subtle, tips of the hat to Hamlet and Macbeth, all set in the not too distant future. However, this delightfully mad concept turns into a hilarious, gripping, and thought-provoking piece of art, which explores more complex moral, political, and social issues than any play on Broadway today.
At the plays open, Queen Elizabeth has died and Prince Charles ascends to power as king. Plagued by feelings of inadequacy in the weighty role, Charles tackles his new position with vigor and challenges a new privacy law recently passed by Parliament – he champions the freedom of the press and vows to protect democratic rights. Spurned by Charles’ refusal to sign the law as tradition mandates, Prime Minister Evans is forced into a constitutional battle with the monarchy, threatening the position of the crown for years to come and upending life in the Royal household. Facing uncertain futures, Prince William, Duchess Kate, and Prince Harry must make decisions that will impact their roles within the monarchy. While Kate assesses ways to take the throne and positions herself to serve as co-ruler with her young husband, William embraces lessons learned from his grandmother and deceased mother, Diana, opting to use silent resolve and diplomatic cunning to address the problems created by his father. Harry, ever the rebel, runs away from the political drama embroiling the household and falls in love with a working class girl named Jess who encourages him to leave the restrictive world of royalty behind. Ultimately, a house divided cannot stand, and the conflict within the House of Windsor comes to a tumultuous head – resulting in a future that does not look all that different from the one that many people envision for the real British monarchy.
Bartlett’s elegantly constructed tale is a piece of lyrical artistry, solidly built using blank verse. The Shakespearian-esq delivery, at first jarring, seems an enchanting and, at times, haunting choice that nicely showcases the emotional weight of the play, including during a climatic fight between father and son over the throne itself. Bartlett’s greatest achievement lies in his ability to destroy commonly held views of prominent cultural figures – reshaping the audience’s perception of famous men and women. For example, Prince Charles, so often portrayed as inept or immoral (especially with respect to Princess Diana), shines as a man in turmoil – caught between, on one hand, his firm belief in the democratic rights that underlie the fabric of British society and his obligations as head of state and, on the other hand, the empty, figurehead and tabloid-fodder status that the royal family has held throughout his life. The object of the public’s affection, power couple Kate and William, enjoy a less rosy status in King Charles III – portrayed as almost villainous at times with eyes toward the crown as a mere object of social status, even at the expense of their family’s happiness.
One interesting element of Charles III involves the mixed audience reactions to the play. Some scenes elicited riotous laughter from certain members of the audience while simultaneously eliciting great sympathy from others – quite an accomplishment for any shared experience. The mixed reactions may reflect the level of familiarity patrons have with British politics and the royal family. That said, if there is any fault in the show, it may be that non-Anglophiles could find the subject matter challenging or even boring.
Director Rupert Gold’s bold staging balances introspective soliloquies with brash protest sequences, quiet conversations at late night fast food joints with the pomp and circumstance of a coronation ceremony – all upon a simply adorned stage surrounded by brick walls and a mural of blurred faces that watch every royal move from a frieze behind the actors (designed by Tom Scutt). Composer Jocelyn Pook’s stirring musical interludes bring a poignant gravitas to the Queen’s funeral, the harrowing protest scene outside of the castle walls (with actors donning the ever-creepy Guy Fawkes masks), and the final coronation sequence that denotes Charles’ end as King. These sequences are also aided significantly by Jon Clark’s moody lighting design and Paul Arditti’s on-point sound design.
Deftly portraying King Charles III with an astounding amount of emotional depth, pluck, and plenty of hand-wringing is stage veteran Tim Pigott-Smith. Pigott-Smith not only bears a fair amount of physical resemblance to Prince Charles, he has crafted a virtuous and sympathetic character, plagued by his late wife’s demise, who is far too well-intentioned and ambitious for the role of king. Oliver Chris grows into the role of William as the show progresses, shining in a moment of intensity when the young prince confronts his father’s transgressions with respect to Princess Diana and the future of the monarchy. While the role of Kate is written as a bit too conniving to be believed, Lydia Wilson’s portrays the Duchess as a modern woman, duly aware of her role while also aware of the power she holds in her position, with enough reflections of Lady Macbeth to elicit a smile from any fan of Shakespeare. Newcomer Tafline Steen stuns as Harry’s badass girlfriend Jess – an unimpressed art student who unabashedly challenges the role of the royal family in modern times and does not shy away from her humble origins. However, it is Richard Goulding’s turn as the rebellous Prince Harry that stands out in this talented cast. Goulding’s sense of comedic timing lightens an otherwise quite tense and dark play, and he perfectly captures the charming and boyish demeanor that make Prince Harry such an enticing public figure.
For Anglophiles, politicos, and anyone who appreciates some juicy family drama, King Charles III is the perfect blend of political and social commentary, with a heavy hand of tabloid pizazz, presented in enchantingly poetic blank verse. It is a definite must-see for the fall Broadway season – check it out at The Music Box before the limited engagement ends on January 31!
*This is likely untrue.