by Samuel L. Leiter
It wasn’t that long ago that a play like Mike Bartlett’s compelling King Charles III, now visiting Broadway after its Olivier Award-winning London run, would never have been permitted on the British commercial stage. Censorship restrictions against theatrical representations of current or recent members of the British monarchy only began to loosen in 1937, when the official censor allowed Laurence Housman’s biodrama, Victoria Regina (a Broadway hit in 1935), to be staged as part of the centennial celebration of Queen Victoria’s coronation; even then the censor was watchful for anything disparaging to the royal family if it happened within 100 years of a monarch’s coronation. Nowadays, however, British playwrights are free to say whatever they please, even when—as in Bartlett’s play—some might consider questionable the treatment of people very much alive.
In a sense, King Charles III, subtitled “A Future History Play,” picks up where another British monarchical drama, last season’s The Audience, about the weekly meetings of Queen Elizabeth with her serial prime ministers, left off. Queen Elizabeth has just died and Prince Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith), the Prince of Wales, has become king, although his coronation is three months away. Still unsure of his capacity to rule (“potential” being safer than “failure”), he nonetheless dives right in, holding his first audience with the PM, Mr. Evans (Adam James) of the Labour Party. He even challenges tradition by inviting the opposition leader, Mr. Stevens (Anthony Calf), for his own weekly session. But trouble erupts at once when Charles declares that he’s so uncomfortable with a new bill favored by Evans restricting freedom of the press that he refuses to sign it, a decision supported by his wife, Duchess Camilla (Margot Leicester).
The tradition maintained at such meetings by his late mother is that the monarch remain neutral about such things, signing them pro forma regardless of personal feelings. Technically, it appears, the monarch can withhold his signature and thereby prevent a bill’s passage. The crisis that ensues not only encourages the antimonarchical factions but, when Charles dissolves Parliament, also threatens the national polity, leading to a possible civil war and the end of the monarchy.
Meanwhile, the royal family’s internal issues are revealed through 1) the romance of Harry (Richard Goulding), the ginger-haired, insecure, party-boy prince, with Jess (Tafline Steen), a politically radical art student who wants Harry to become a commoner but has a tabloid-ready past, and 2) the ambitions of Kate (Lydia Wilson), the exquisite, scheming, ultra-feminist, she-who-would-be-queen wife of Prince William (Oliver Chris), who refuses to let the monarchy (and his future as king) crumble. Attempting to keep a lid on things is the royal family’s supercilious press representative, James Reiss (Miles Richardson).
Bartlett (whose plays Cock and Bull recently played locally) has created a Shakespeare for our times, writing in a fluid iambic pentameter that mingles formal locutions with contemporary colloquialisms and scene-ending rhymed couplets. Using striking soliloquies and a healthy splash of humor, he weaves the political, personal, and familial conflicts together in a marvelously integrated dramatic narrative that subtly, and with a smidgen of satirical intent, incorporates echoes of King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard II, Richard III, and Henry IV. There’s even a ghost wandering through Tom Scutt’s setting, a semicircular, brickwork surround suggesting the ancient bowels of Buckingham Palace, with a band of vaguely painted faces running across it to represent the British public. The ghost is Princess Diana’s, intoning, “You will be the greatest king ever,” fateful words that assume several meanings as the play proceeds.
All is brilliantly staged by Rupert Goold, with appropriate pomp and circumstance, under Jon Clark’s magnificent lighting, aided by a splendid company, including three actors (Tom Robertson, Nyasha Hatendi, and Sally Scott) playing three roles each. Jocelyn Pook’s ceremonial music, some of it sung in choral passages, contributes immeasurably, as do Mr. Scutt’s character-perfect costumes.
Each role is expertly cast, with several actors closely resembling their real-life counterparts. Mr. Pigott-Smith doesn’t so much look like Charles, however, as capture his regal dignity, making him both firm and vulnerable, until he becomes a tragic figure struggling to maintain his idealism in a world of realpolitik that has no use for him. His is a commanding performance with shining glints of the several Shakespearean figures that compose his role. But it is only one of many factors helping make King Charles III an event that serious theatregoers will miss at their own peril.
King Charles III
The Music Box
239 West 45th Street, NYC
Through January 31, 2016
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).