The prize-winning play King Charles III, billed as a “future history play” and now on Broadway at the Music Box theatre, is a compelling theatrical conjecture. It anticipates the time when Queen Elizabeth is gone and her oldest son, Charles, is in position finally to become king. Charles, alas, has always been a person from whom little has been expected (some would say this is one reason QEII has hung on so long), a view which he himself has contributed to. His perceived rejection of Diana—“the world’s princess”—in favor of the unloved Camilla Parker-Bowles added fire to his critics, who had previously mustered little more than a yawn.
In the play, the Liberal Prime Minister assumes Charles will play the role of thoughtful rubber-stamp that his mother did, so well portrayed in The Audience (Helen Mirren as Queen) on Broadway earlier this year. Not so. In their very first meeting, Charles objects to a Liberal bill to restrict freedom of the press. As in a high-stakes chess game, parliamentary move and monarchal countermove ensue. In the fragile edifice of his family, the issue of controls on the frenzied media are of more than academic interest. The plot keeps turning and turning, and I won’t say more about it, except that I found it riveting.
Let’s talk about style. The simple set is intended to remind the audience of the Old Globe, showing shows five sides of an elegant brick structure. A frieze running around the entirety, about ten feet above the stage, comprises semi-abstract faces lit in various ways to denote “the people”—crowds, demonstrators, in other words, those most likely to be affected by the affairs of state on which Charles aspires to be a benevolent, active force.
The echoes of Shakespeare are more than visual. We have the machinations of Lady Macbeth, the indecisiveness of Richard II, the desperation of Lear. Written in blank verse, playwright Mike Bartlett’s language is often given an Elizabethan cadence, “Husband,” Kate calls to William, and nearly every scene ends in a rhyming couplet. This is artificial, but doesn’t seem artifice. Rather it reflects the tragedy, if tragedy is defined in the dramatic sense, as a fall from a great height, playing out before us. We are seeing critical precedents discussed and the weight of 1600 years of history. Such events are worthy of Shakespearean language in the country’s leaders, and not the territory of “Oh, whatever” or a graceless “WTF?”
The cast, which comes from London’s prestigious Almeida Theatre, is excellent. By training and experience, it manages this demanding language well. Tim Pigott-Smith is a heart-breaking Charles (The Telegraph of London calls it “the performance of his career”), and Margot Leicester is perfect as Camilla. I also especially liked pencil-thin Lydia Wilson as Kate and Richard Goulding as “the ginger idiot,” Harry. Adam James and Anthony Calf were fine as the Liberal and Conservative leaders, respectively. The program notes that many of the actors had vocal training, and that stands them in good stead in various scenes, in which solemn chanting (this is not a musical!) establishes a moody atmosphere, which is not to say there are no laughs elsewhere.
Bartlett also wrote the theatrical version of Chariots of Fire (seen in London in 2012 and greatly admired), among many others, and won a Best New Play award for Charles III. It’s nice to see something on Broadway that grapples with thought-worthy issues, including questions for which Americans are merely interested observers, like the future of the monarchy.
As in London, the production is directed by Rupert Goold, the award-winning Artistic Director of Almeida Theatre. I wondered what the U.K. critics thought of it, and found they quite approved. For example, critic Michael Billington in The Guardian said, “It gains traction as it goes along and by the end has acquired a borrowed grandeur through its Shakespearean form and a tragic dimension through the performance of Tim Pigott-Smith.” Agree. Whole-heartedly.