King Charles III: Theater review by David Cote
For the living playwright working in English, William Shakespeare vexes. Whether you think his global stature oppressive or admire the works as antique phenomena with little bearing on today’s dramaturgical needs, the legacy must be dealt with. In the academy, they dissect him along ideological lines; high-concept, modern settings are de rigueur; and now Oregon Shakespeare Festival has commissioned “translations” of the 36 plays. Much less common is rigorous study and emulation, the path taken by Mike Bartlett in his audacious, madly engaging verse drama, King Charles III. Writing five acts mostly in iambic pentameter, Bartlett plugs directly into a tradition that uses scintillating metered poetry to connect the fortunes of a nation to the torments of a family.
Had this speculative tale of Prince Charles ascending to the throne after Elizabeth II’s death been executed in prose, it would have been a mere “state of the nation” British drama with a bit of satirical cheek. Actors playing tabloid icons like Camilla, Kate and raffish Prince Harry elicit knowing chuckles on first entrance, but once they start spouting Bartlett’s meaty, incisive lines, you settle into a deep-listening groove. “For if my name is given through routine / And not because it represents my view,” reflects newly crowned King Charles III (Pigott-Smith), “Then soon I’ll have no name, and nameless I / Have not myself, and having not myself, / Possess not mouth nor tongue nor brain.” Improbably, the twittish Prince of Wales approaches the introspective grandeur of Richard II, and we lean forward hungrily, gobbling up his cascading iambs.
What Charles refuses to sign in that scene is a new law strongly supported by Prime Minister Evans (Adam James) that would limit the freedom of the press to tap citizens’ personal data through hacking. Although Charles’s privacy has been violated in the past, he takes a principled stand against the bill. The ensuing struggle between king and Parliament—followed with filial anguish by Prince William (Oliver Chris) and opportunistic curiosity by Kate (Lydia Wilson)—threatens the monarchy itself. Will Charles surround Buckingham with armed troops? Will William usurp his father? It’s political soap opera with soaring rhetoric. Still, Bartlett sets the bar so high, there’s room to quibble that some characters (Harry’s antiroyal love interest) are underwritten, and the obligatory ghost of Diana is more gothic accessory than tragic catalyst.
Bartlett’s otherwise bravura text also might have stalled if Rupert Goold’s staging weren’t so passionately acted and gorgeously designed. Scouring his soul on a red-carpeted dais surrounded by a medieval stone wall, Pigott-Smith wrings every drop of pathos and pride from his speeches as a monarch unthroned by high ideals. Galvanizing and astonishing, King Charles III doesn’t just send you back to Shakespeare’s histories; it makes you want to write one.—David Cote
Music Box Theatre (Broadway). By Mike Bartlett. Directed by Rupert Goold. With Tim Pigott-Smith, Anthony Calf, Oliver Chris, Richard Goulding, Nyasha Hatendi, Adam James, Margot Leicester, Miles Richardson, Tom Robertson, Sally Scott, Tafline Steen, Lydia Wilson. Running time: 2hrs 40mins. One intermission.
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