Short of discovering a long-lost Shakespeare play, Mike Bartlett's King Charles III is about as close as one can hope to get to a modern-day Shakespearean drama. Subtitled "a future history play," Bartlett has crafted a dazzling and gripping piece of theater that needs no apologies to the greatest playwright the English language has produced.
With a superb performance by Tim Pigott-Smith in the title role, surrounded by an all-round stellar cast, and smartly directed by Rupert Goold, King Charles III is a riveting and highly entertaining tale of an imagined power struggle that first brings the British crown in direct conflict with Parliament over one of democracy's most fundamental freedoms, then devolves into a palace coup that threatens the monarchy itself. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, indeed.
Bows to Shakespeare abound throughout Bartlett's play. Apart from writing it in blank verse and using a five-act format (though it is played in two), Bartlett draws plausible if improbable parallels between certain members of the present royal family and characters from Shakespeare's histories and tragedies.
It is a spectacular high-wire act that is both intensely dramatic and richly humorous. He gives each of the main characters a soliloquy or two and also uses some Shakespearean devices to advance his plot.
Charles, like Hamlet for example, is visited by the ghosts of his first wife, Diana, and his mother, both of whom exhort him to become England's "greatest king." Kate, as in the present Duchess of Cambridge, bears a striking resemblance to Lady Macbeth in her vaulting ambition to see her husband, William, on the throne. (Even some lines echo Shakespeare, as when Kate admonishes a reluctant William, "Nothing comes of nothing said," and to which William, once he decides to act, replies, "Then if it's done, it's done at once.")
Harry, the prodigal second prince who provides much of the play's comic relief, could be a stand-in for the young Prince Hal of the Henry cycle, a comparison bolstered when he forsakes the rowdy companions he once partied with and accepts his royal responsibilities. His main mates Coottsey and Spencer (pun intended?) could be modern-day Falstaffs and his irreverent girlfriend Jessica a politicized Mistress Quickly.
The play opens with the cast of a dozen slowly entering, carrying a candle and intoning the Agnus Dei of a Requiem. The occasion is the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, but even as the royal family condole with one another, affairs of state quickly intrude. The Prince of Wales is now King Charles III, though his actual coronation is months away.
At his first weekly audience with his prime minister, Mr. Evans (while the characters of the royals all bear their real names the politicians are given fictitious ones), Charles asks about a new bill just passed by Parliament to severely restrict the freedom of the press. It is now only awaiting his signature to become law.
But the new king takes exception to it and asks his prime minister to revise it before he signs it. When the prime minister flatly refuses, Charles informs Parliament he will not sign the law, thus creating a constitutional crisis that polarizes the nation.
At the heart of Bartlett's play is the balance of power in Britain between Parliament and the monarchy, whose rights have gradually diminished over the centuries to the point where they are now limited "to be consulted; to encourage; to warn" the government of the day.
As the stakes keep rising, Charles reaches into the past to try a ploy last used by King William IV to bring Parliament to heel, but which instead leads to an inter-familial battle to preserve the crown.
What makes King Charles III such exciting theater is that the conflicts that unfold are over present-day concerns and involve the lives of contemporary members of the royal family. And the House of Windsor has certainly had its ups and downs over the past half century.
Around the time he entered Cambridge University, a young Prince Charles was dubbed by detractors and anti-monarchists with the sobriquet "Charles the Last." His popularity, however, has survived his divorce to the popular Diana Spencer and her later tragic death, and both he and his wife Camilla have come to be generally accepted by the British public.
His mother, Queen Elizabeth II, now the longest ruling British monarch in history (and long may she reign), has kept the throne intact and is enjoying a wave of adulation that few sovereigns, British or other, have ever known in their lifetimes. But as New York audiences saw in Helen Mirren's magical portrayal of her in The Audience, she also has had her problems getting prime ministers to heed her warnings (especially against Britain joining the Iraqi war).
Pigott-Smith brilliantly creates a complex Charles, an angst-driven and uncertain prince who variously describes himself to an "empty vessel" and a dusty book on a shelf "unopened and unused." But as the new yet unanointed king slowly gains confidence in the rightness of his cause, he takes on an aura of majesty. And when his crusade is beset from even those nearest him, he bears his betrayal with a Lear-like inevitability.
The entire cast is excellent. As Kate, Lydia Wilson is terrifyingly polite as she plots her husband's grasp of the crown and as William Oliver Chris is the portrait of a 21st-century royal as he is pushed to accept it. Richard Goulding is a model of a modern slacker as Harry and Tafline Steen is feisty as Jess, the free-spirited girl he brings home to meet the king.
Anthony Calf and Adam James are smoothly conniving as Mr. Evans and Mr. Stevens, respectively the prime minister and opposition leader. And Nyasha Hatendi contributes a terrific turn as a street kebab seller among other roles.
The British monarchy in a parliamentary democracy is, as Charles defines it in one of his more moving soliloquys: "an option added on/ like GPS on a car it does not come/ as standard, and the car will function well/ without, it drives, protects, it normally goes." Bartlett's play maps all the potholes a future king may face along the way.