Theater Review: The Difference Between Ruling and Governing, in King Charles III

King Charles III, at the Music Box. Photo: JOHAN PERSSON/JOHAN PERSSON

American leaders usually don’t come under theatrical scrutiny until decades after they leave office. The first serious mainstream plays about Presidents Johnson (All the Way) and Nixon (Frost/Nixon) opened on Broadway in 2014 and 2007. David Hare’s Iraq War docudrama, Stuff Happens, was an exception — it showed up at the Public Theater in 2006, while George W. Bush was still in the White House but like Frost/Nixon it was a London import, and British playwrights don’t wait to roast their rulers. Thatcher was pilloried onstage nearly from Day One. (By contrast, Reagan was mostly left alone.) But even within a vigorous tradition of theater as a form of permanent political opposition a tradition that seems healthy to me — Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, a London hit now opening on Broadway, is breathtakingly audacious and a lot of nasty fun. Not only does it not wait until its principal is out of office; it doesn’t even wait until he’s in it.  

Americans, oddly susceptible to the royalist mystique, may find even the premise disrespectful: Queen Elizabeth has died after some 70 years on the throne. (This would put the date of the “future history play,” as it’s being marketed, around 2022.) Prince Charles, now in his mid-70s, finally has the power of the crown, if not yet the crown itself, but what power is it? In the first of his weekly briefings with the Prime Minister — those meetings that were the subject of last year’s Broadway monarch-porn, The Audience Charles is quickly schooled in the limitations of his job. That he does not approve of a recently passed bill restricting freedom of the press is of no consequence, the PM explains in muscular iambs; he must sign it anyway. He is a figurehead:

Prime Minister: I disagree with what you think and if
                                   You want my true intent, I will say more:
                                   That even if there was a chance to change
                                   The bill to take account of what you think.
                                   I would not see it done. The public vote
                                   To choose the members of their parliament
                                   And that is where decisions will be made,
                                   Not in this room between the two of us.
                                   But sir, now please, it matters not, because
                                   The law is drawn, and voted on and passed. 

               Charles:  Then our weekly meeting’s done. 

When Charles nevertheless refuses to sign the bill, he initiates a struggle that over the course of the play will develop into a full-scale constitutional crisis, and a family crisis as well. Elder son William and daughter-in-law Kate fear that in his eagerness to establish himself as a strong ruler after decades in his mother’s shadow, Charles is risking parliamentary retribution that will only further diminish his (and, eventually, William’s) options. Camilla, Charles’s wife, portrayed here as a hovering hausfrau, stands by her man. The ginger Prince Harry doesn’t seem to care much either way; he only wants to escape the prison of nobility and “descend” to a normal life among the commoners, with Burger Kings instead of real ones. Meanwhile the ghost of Diana — oh yes, the play goes there — slinks in and out, giving ambiguous and contradictory advice in that familiar breathy voice. 

As the use of blank verse suggests, Bartlett aims to dress up the skeeviness of this speculative royal-watching in Shakespearean grandeur, and he mostly succeeds. The iambic pentameter is supple and amusing (“But here’s my husband, he’s been on the phone”) even if it depends a bit too much on auxiliary verbs to fill out the lines. The scene-closing couplets, the elaborately extended metaphors, the near quotations (“Say more. For nothing comes of nothing said”) all support in language the Shakespeare-sized themes and characters he has tossed into the blender. Harry is obviously patterned on the wastrel Prince Hal; William, when forced to decide whether to support or betray his father, waffles like Hamlet. Kate, the future queen, audaciously channels Lady Macbeth (“Become the man I know you are and act”), as Charles himself, double-crossed both by family and retainers, crumples like King Lear. Whether the actual royals thus ennobled are worthy of such treatment is a question this production does not reach — that’s part of its daring. It uses their names to bait our interest but does not (because it can’t) dramatize their particular truths. In that sense, King Charles III is no better than the tabloids and trashy mags it rails against, the very publications whose excesses the play’s imagined parliament is attempting to curtail in the bill that Charles refuses to sign. How different is it for a press baron to splash Charles’s silly face on lurid covers as a way of selling what turns out to be fiction than for a playwright to do the same on posters? 

Of course Bartlett — the author of the plays Cock (excellent) and Bull (less so) has something more than sales in mind. He wants to use the opportunity of the near-term royal transition as a way of questioning the continued relevance of the whole monarchical institution. If kings and queens have no power, no aptitude for anything other than deforming the emotional lives of their children, what is the point of maintaining them? Would not Great Britain, as well as the Windsors themselves, be better off without the burden of an ancient and outdated tradition? These are not by any stretch new questions, nor, thankfully, does Bartlett offer the obvious, expected answers. In any case, what I found most exciting about the play was not the way it refreshes our idea of a particular inbred family, but the way it refreshes our idea of what is Shakespearean. It reminds us that all those Lears and Macbeths and Hals and Hamlets were addressing the same issues that face us today: the meaning of leadership, the trade-offs of service, the glamour of ambition, the tragedy of doubt. By re-embodying these themes in people we know, or think we do, Bartlett reorganizes our understanding of the originals. Not only is his imagined Kate a latter-day Lady Macbeth, but Lady Macbeth is a Kate precursor.

That the projection works both ways is partly due to the extraordinarily vivid Shakespearean style of the cast, most of them imported from the London production, which won the Olivier Award for best new play earlier this year. Unlike the fine young actors playing William and Harry, who are near ringers for the real princes, Tim Pigott-Smith looks relatively little like Charles; he is nevertheless masterfully convincing in the role. This is less a matter of re-creating the prince’s mannerisms (touching his lip, tugging at his thinning hair) than of inhabiting the strange, stunted emotional world of a man who has largely been defined in public by his most peculiar traits, since they are the only ones that break through the mask of his royalty. Similarly, the terrific Lydia Wilson is not so much impersonating Kate (though the wig is fabulous) as playing a powerful woman determined to wriggle out of the trap that tradition has set for her predecessors. She, like the entire cast, has no trouble making the verse spring lively and enlisting the audience’s sympathies so that, in the end, we are utterly unsure where they should lie. And Rupert Goold’s staging — for him, an understated one, with few of his usual brutal, high-tech intrusions — supports that effect with its direct address and shirtsleeves candor, so much so that the more formal elements (Elizabeth’s funeral, the climactic coronation) seem strangely out-of-scale, with lots of candles, choral singing, and marching around.

In the end, King Charles III justifies its chutzpah even as it flies off the rails in the chaotic plotting of Act Two. You are engaged by its intrigue and moved, almost against your will, by its characters, then somewhat trampled by the onrush of events required to produce its powerful final tableau. Sound familiar? I’m not sure you are likely to encounter anything onstage this year, short of Shakespeare, that is so damned Shakespearean.

King Charles III is at the Music Box Theatre through January 31.