Shows Worth Seeing:
King Charles III
By Mike Bartlett
The Music Box
239 W. 45th St.
King Charles III is a terrifically cheeky play. An intimate fictional tale about the actual British royal family, it turns celebrity gossip into intelligent historical speculation and melodramatic exaggeration into keen psychological perception. The playwright Mike Barlett considers out loud the most persistent whispered questions about the future of the monarchy. But beyond that, he scares us with a near-future alternative-history scenario so plausible and thought-provoking that it comes off as a wise cautionary tale.
Following the death of Queen Elizabeth after a 70-year reign (implying the action is set in 2022), Charles is finally crowned as he enters old age himself. Having waited so long to rule, Bartlett suggests, he overcompensates by asserting royal authority in a way that destablilizes the British government. He refuses to sign a bill passed by Parliament and endorsed by the Prime Minister. That this constitutional crisis is driven by a matter of real importance about which Charles takes a conscience-driven stand (limitations on press freedom) is essential to the play’s gravity. A story propelled merely by hoary truisms about his fecklessness would have been weightless and dismissable.
Bartlett endows not only Charles but also everyone else in the royal-celebrity gang—Camilla, Diana (as a ghost), William, Kate and Harry—with rich complexity and specific political purpose in his elegantly woven plot. And as if that weren’t enough of a juggling feat, he wrote the play in iambic pentameter—a fantastic gamble that pays astonishing dividends by underscoring the story’s many Shakespearean parallels and providing us the distance necessary to appreciate them. With such tabloid-soaked figures, linguistic familiarity could have easily bred contempt.
What exactly is the play cautioning against? Not a single danger, it seems to me, but rather a general media-age fetish for haste and convenience—a tendency that amounts to chronic superficiality, constantly pushing us to scrap venerable traditions whenever their immediate utility eludes us. But that's only one of its many aspects. The work will be ripe for battling interpretation for many years to come.
Every cast member in Rupert Goold’s classy production is spot-on, particularly Tim Pigott-Smith as an extraordinarily varied and human Charles, Oliver Chris as a splendidly earnest and ruthless William, and Lydia Wilson as a thrillingly sleek and commanding Kate. Now that this rare play has crossed the Atlantic after a year and a half in the West End, one can’t help wondering whether any of the real royals might have donned fake beards to give it a secret look. They should.