|Tim Pigott-Smith as the Prince of Wales in King Charles III, at Broadway's Music Box Theatre. (Photo Sara Krulwich)|
Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III begins in the not-too-distant future, after the death of Queen Elizabeth, when Prince Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith) is about to succeed to the throne. Bartlett’s notion is to present a story of royal intrigue, in the days following the longest reign of any monarch in English history, as a five-act verse play (in iambic pentameter and blank verse, of course), and it’s cleverly packed with allusions to Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies. Charles ruminates in soliloquy on kingship, like Richard II and Henry IV; his last soliloquy, after his son William (Oliver Chris) and daughter-in-law Kate (Lydia Wilson) have manipulated him into abdicating in William’s favor, is inspired by Richard’s prison speech in the final act of Richard II. William is, naturally, in the position of Bolingbroke to Charles’ Richard, but he and Kate are also versions of the Macbeths, with scheming Kate urging her husband on in his reticent moments: “My nervous future King! . . . Become the man I know you are and act,” and later, “I lifted you, my one, / To where by right of birth you ought to be.” William’s kid brother Harry (Richard Goulding), who falls in love with a proletarian, Jess (Tafline Steen), is a debased version of Prince Hal in the Henry IV plays, and his scenes, like the ones in Shakespeare that involve lower-class characters, are mostly in prose. The anti-monarchy protesters – including Jess – who pop up in force when Charles’ refusal to sign a bill creates an unresolvable tension between him and Parliament suggest the chaos in the streets after Caesar’s murder in Julius Caesar. There’s even a Shakespearean ghost with a not immediately apparent identity.
This is all fun, but the elements of parody don’t determine the tone of the play. And it isn’t really a satire either, though the first half seems to be tending that way. What it turns into after intermission is a political melodrama. Bartlett has some good narrative ideas, like depicting Charles as more liberal than either the prime minister, Mr. Evans (Adam James), or the leader of the opposition, Mr. Stevens (Anthony Calf): the bill he won’t support limits the power of the press, and Charles, though he doesn’t put it in exactly this way, finds it fascist. But as an examination of English politics and specifically the strange relationship between the royals and the government, King Charles III is intriguing but doesn’t go very deep.
Bartlett has a good time burlesquing the royal family’s famous reserve, as when Charles remarks on the behavior of his grandchildren at the queen’s funeral:
They watched and listened, and like all of usAnd his depiction of Harry, who can’t wait to get away from his social obligations so he can go off with his drinking pals, is amusing in the early scenes. But most of the humor derives from Bartlett’s use of the verse. When Harry becomes involved with Jess and they’re photographed together, an old boy friend tries to blackmail her with an indiscreet selfie she sent him when they were a couple, and he has to warn his father – which he does in verse. Camilla (Margot Leicester) remarks, “I’ve never heard you speak in such a way / With passion, strength and rhythm too.” Charles relays his decision not to sign Mr. Evans’ bill through an emissary, prompting the PM’s chief adviser, Sarah (Sally Scott, who also plays the ghost) to erupt after his exit:
They kept their real emotions to themselves.
In public, William, you were the same,
For as a babe so silent in your cot
We worried you might quietly have died.
You’re shitting me. Is this a fucking dream?This is a dual joke: it’s funny to hear contemporary obscenities in iambic pentameter and we recognize that Charles’ communication method is actually more archaic than Sarah indicates, i.e., out of Renaissance drama.
It seems you are correct, our King is mad,
And taken to communicate with us
In methods from the nineteenth century.
Sometimes Bartlett twists the phrasing of the lines to draw comic attention to the formality of the meters (“Yes, this is what, enthroned, that I will do”). But his skill at verse is limited to humor. He doesn’t have a feel for poetic language; when he isn’t using it to make jokes, it’s dull. Here’s the beginning of Charles’ fifth-act soliloquy:
I have been through the archive many timesThis speech makes your eyes glaze over (it goes on for fourteen more lines).
But read as King each word seems made afresh.
I have been seeking moments which relate
Precisely to the current state of play.
Our English law is based on precedent
And when I’m called to make my case I must
Have all the facts to hand, examples of
When monarchs in the past have also done
The same as I, or very near.
The production is highly competent but unexciting. Tom Scott’s imposing set is beautiful, but Rupert Goold’s staging is surprisingly unimaginative. The standout in the cast is certainly Pigott-Smith, whose performance is simultaneously pensive and authoritative; it’s his work more than anything else that makes the show worth seeing.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.