The events of November 8, 2016, changed a lot of things, and the way people will view this play is one of them. What before might have seemed like an amusing, though probing, meditation on celebrity and power in the digital age now reads as a harrowing look into the precariousness of political norms and institutions. There are several moments in King Charles III that might leave you shook—the blast from a bomb that’s landed far too close to home.
The play is written by Mike Bartlett, a contemporary British scribe of such uncommon skill that his words actually match his equally uncommon ambitions. To wit, instead of simply borrowing tropes and characters and storylines from the works of William Shakespeare, Bartlett went ahead and borrowed the man’s writing style, too. King Charles III is rendered in modern language, yes, but also in blank verse. With some authors this could seem gimmicky, but with a writer of Bartlett’s immeasurable talent, it’s simply the most effective way to tell the story at hand.
Directed here in a stupendous production by Chicago Shakes stalwart Gary Griffin, the play imagines Charles, Prince of Wales, ascending to the throne upon Queen Elizabeth II’s death and promptly making an absolute mess of things. (The play has been dubbed a “future history.”) As played here by British actor Robert Bathurst (Downton Abbey, Cold Feet), Charles is at once both dangerously stubborn and woefully unsure—a man with two personalities, one Lear and one Hamlet. He is yet another in an endless line of manchildren who cannot stand up for themselves unless they’re throwing a complete tantrum.
When a bill from Parliament restraining the freedom of the press is placed in front of him by the Prime Minister (Sean Fortunato) for his royal seal of approval, King Charles refuses to sign it. Despite living a life upon which the press has intruded with alarming depth and frequency—not to mention the paparazzi’s role in the death of his ex-wife, Princess Diana—Charles is so disturbed by the bill’s possible implications for a muzzled press that he cannot in good faith see it put into law.
The only problem here is that the bill has already been passed into law; the King’s signature is just a formality, one that no English monarch has declined to give for centuries. And yet, faced with the prospect of putting his personal feelings over centuries of established social political norm, Charles goes with his gut. And when he is egged on in this endeavor by the opportunistic leader of the opposition party (David Lively), who senses that gridlock and chaos can only benefit his own agenda, the U.K. is sent hurtling toward a full-blown constitutional crisis.
Meanwhile, Prince Harry (Alec Manley Wilson) is having a bit of a crisis of his own. Namely, he’s fallen in love with a girl named Jess (Rae Gray) who just so happens to be a poor, socialist art student—not exactly “royalty material.” Harry’s solution to this is simple: What if he wasn’t a royal anymore? Maybe he should get some advice from the beautiful, blond-haired lady ghost (Sarah Chalcroft) that’s been seen hanging around Buckingham Palace of late.
And then there’s William (Jordan Dean), the steadfast heir to the throne, and his supportive, kind and tough-as-nails wife, Kate (Amanda Drinkall). These two are, in their own way, the play’s most fascinating figures. As they discuss and explore the possibility of forcing Charles’ abdication, so that the far more popular William and Kate can rule instead, the lines between self-interest and love-of-country blur into nothingness. They’re a pair of Macbeths that you can actually sort of root for…sometimes.At the very least, by evening’s end, you’ll probably find yourself muttering “I’m with them.”
Chicago Shakespeare Theater. By Mike Bartlett. Directed by Gary Griffin. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 30mins; one intermission.