Is there some reason why an American audience should care about the future of the British monarchy? That’s the question that hangs over King Charles III, playwright Mike Bartlett’s cleverly conceived play, simultaneously stately and subversive, that imagines what will happen after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, when the Prince of Wales ascends the throne.
Even before his official coronation, King Charles refuses to sign a bill overwhelmingly passed by Parliament that will restrict the freedom of the press. Since the monarch’s approval of legislation is supposed to be automatic — a ceremonial formality in England since the 18th century — his refusal sets off a constitutional crisis, which brings the nation to the brink of armed conflict.
King Charles III differs greatly in tone from what’s suggested by the image of Prince Charles with his mouth taped shut that’s on the poster, ads, playbill and even the digital marquee of Broadway’s Music Box Theater, where the play has opened. This is not a show in Monty Python or Something Rotten territory. Bartlett has crafted an imitation of a Shakespeare history play; it labels itself “a future history play.” King Charles III is written in iambic pentameter, and filled with allusions to famous scenes from the Bard’s work, given a modern spin. The ghost of Princess Diana, for example, appears (à la Hamlet) to Charles, as well as to his eldest son Prince William, and delivers a prophecy that (Macbeth-like) is a riddle with a twisty pay-off.
Director Rupert Goold has deepened the sense of an Elizabethan drama with a superb cast, led by Tim Pigott-Smith, who is both an experienced Shakespearean actor and a familiar face on TV. The acting helps elevate the plot to the feel of tragedy, despite some tabloid-tawdry goings-on: A subplot involves Charles’s younger son Prince Harry (stand-out Richard Goulding) and his relationship with a hip, artistic commoner, Jess (Tafline Steen), who has steamy cell phone pics in her past. Oliver Chris is a persuasively upright, look-alike Prince William, albeit with more hair, and Lydia Wilson as his wife has all the grace and down-to-earth elegance of Kate Middleton, but is presented as an ambitious schemer on a par with Lady Macbeth, minus all the blood.
Pigott-Smith makes no attempt at exact impersonation of Charles, who in the play is a well-meaning man of principle, naïve to the point of recklessness. The characterization feels unrealistic for someone who’s been steeped since birth in British history and royal tradition. The creative team seems less interested in reproducing the actual Royal Family than in devising characters that fit into a Shakespearean mold. Is there some subtle mockery going on here? Are we meant to register the contrast between the grand and powerful royalty chronicled by William Shakespeare and the very ordinary and ultimately powerless Windsors of the present day chronicled by the Daily Express and People Magazine? There’s some hint of this in the language, such as at the start of the play when Charles, coming from the funeral, laments:
My whole existence has like most of us
Been built upon the ones who gave me birth.
And now they’re gone. That’s it. First Dad. Now mum. The only truth: I am alone.
That “Now mum” feels like a little playful jab – all the more so since his wife Camilla (Margot Leicester) immediately pipes up that he is not alone; he has her. (“It’s not the same,” he replies.)
By the end of the play, Charles is a Lear-like tragic figure, undone by his progeny and his own foolishness – or perhaps just a pathetic figure, since he’s not dead, just humiliated; Lear light.
King Charles III was ecstatically received in London, where it won the 2015 Olivier Award for Best New Play. The British critics were largely adoring, one observing that the play “raises fascinating questions about the future of the monarchy.”
I don’t find the questions so fascinating.
In my review of Hamilton, I wrote that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “has the potential to do something revolutionary – to help dissolve Broadway’s dependence on British imports, and throw off the tyranny of Hollywood adaptations.”
That hasn’t happened yet. King Charles III is the third British import on Broadway this year about British royalty – not works by Shakespeare, but new plays. I thought The Audience, about Queen Elizabeth’s meetings with her prime ministers over the course of her 60-year reign, would “appeal primarily to Anglophiles, Monarchists and fans of Helen Mirren,” as I wrote in my review. There must be a lot of them, since the play recouped just five weeks after it opened. Wolf Hall, a two-part stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels about Henry VIII and his adviser Thomas Cromwell, didn’t fare as well financially – and, for what it’s worth, I found it surprisingly dull. Indeed, I shuddered a little when I realized that Tom Scutt’s scenic design for King Charles III — monumental backdrop with little else on stage – reminded me of the set for Wolf Hall.
Although King Charles III has no single performance as rewarding as Helen Mirren’s in The Audience, it is overall the most theatrically satisfying of the three Broadway plays about British royals this year. But it left me with some questions, and not about the future of the British monarchy: Why are there no plays on Broadway recounting the real or imagined intrigue in any of the many nations with greater geopolitical importance than a Britannia that no longer rules the waves?
King Charles III is on stage at the Music Box Theater (239 West 45th Street, NY, NY, 10036, East of Eighth Avenue) through January 31, 2016.
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