Review Roundup: KING CHARLES III Opens on Broadway- Updating Live!
King Charles III review – provocative drama tells a ‘future history’.
Genre: Play, Original; Starring: Tim Pigott-Smith, Oliver Chris, Richard Goulding, Lydia Wilson; Director: Rupert Goold; Author: Mike Bartlett; Opening Date: Nov. 1, 2015 Those unfamiliar with this anecdote will find it too goofy to believe: On a telephone call, which was hacked and recorded in 1989 and fed like candy to the world’s media shortly thereafter, Prince Charles told his then-mistress Camilla Parker-Bowles that he wanted to be reincarnated as her Tampax tampon. “My luck to be chucked down the lavatory,” he told her, “and go on and on forever swirling round the top, never going down.” That sentiment from Charles, rather brilliant in its metaphor, actually, does not appear (but just as well might do so) in Mike Bartlett’s magnificent, ingenious, fearlessly comic King Charles III (playing now at the Music Box Theatre), which imagines the ascension to the throne of Great Britain’s most lugubrious elder prince.
Wait until you meet the battling, plotting, fulminating, equivocating Windsors of “King Charles III,” Mike Bartlett’s sublime peek past the reign of Elizabeth II and into the turbulent monarchy her son inherits. But it is easy enough to imagine: the procession and the crepe, the tear-streaked faces, the plastic-wrapped bouquets mounded at the gates of Buckingham Palace.
Fortified by a sensational central performance by Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles, Bartlett scores one remarkable dramatic coup after another, in an evening so convincingly modeled on Shakespeare that never for a moment does an audience question his choice of having Charles and William and Harry and Kate and Diana converse in iambic pentameter. The year is not given but we’re in the very near future, and the plot smoothly skates the line between referencing real people and events while inventing new ones. Any echoes you may infer regarding a certain Danish prince are entirely appropriate to this dazzlingly presumptuous drama, set in and around Buckingham Palace in a highly foreseeable future. That’s right, even the late Princess of Wales materializes here, floating in from the great beyond like some chic, furtive version of Banquo or the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, to unsettle the denizens of Buckingham, Kensington and Windsor palaces. True, as a product of the 20th century, the newly anointed King Charles — whom you probably know better as the current Prince of Wales — would seem to have more in common with T S.
His script slips in and out of blank verse and borrows in large and small ways from “Macbeth,” “Richard II” and “King Lear.” Relax, you won’t need CliffsNotes; it’s always easy to follow. Yet there’s no mistaking the queen’s grandsons, William (Oliver Chris) and Harry (Richard Goulding), and William’s wife Kate (Lydia Wilson), all of whom are near doppelgangers for their true life counterparts. Even before Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith) is crowned, he upends all expectations — and history — by refusing to sign a bill about freedom of the press.
As Charles, Tim Pigott-Smith is not a dead ringer in physical appearance, but crucially captures that unique buffoon charm that any non-royalist who’s ever seen the prince interviewed will instantly detect. “The only truth: I am alone,” Charles laments in the first scene. “Except for me,” reminds Camilla (Margot Leicester), to which Charles sighs, “It’s not the same.” We in the audience laugh because he isn’t being callous. As portrayed by Lydia Wilson, she’s a woman with an undercoat of steel, one fully aware of the benefits of casting an alluring public spell, and invested in her husband’s regal trajectory with a fervor bordering on Lady Macbeth’s. Directed with fiery wit and rushing momentum by Rupert Goold, this London import, which won last year’s Olivier Award for best play, is a work that takes all manner of audacious license, poetic and otherwise. It’s one thing to portray the current members of the House of Windsor, on whom it is always open season for writers of every stripe, in a mainstream drama. (A fictional version of Queen Elizabeth II showed up on Broadway earlier this year — and picked up a Tony for the actress playing her, Helen Mirren — in the form of Peter Morgan’s “The Audience.” But that play was highly respectful to Her Majesty and, while necessarily speculative, rooted in known fact.) But Mr. Prince Harry’s penchant for pub crawls, fast food joints–and anonymity–stamps him as a kindred spirit with Shakespeare’s own Prince Hal, who roams the inns of Cheapside in “Henry IV Part 1″ to slake his thirst for the romantic roughness of life among the working classes.
When a person already prone to eccentricity (Charles has admitted that he talks to plants) has been suppressed under his mother’s mighty bejeweled hand for so long, what will he do when he’s finally free? Bartlett has the hubris to venture not only into the future but also into the minds of public figures who are notorious for never revealing their thoughts.
One of the better bits of imagery compares frozen dinners to a home-cooked organic meal (a sly jab at the Duchy biscuit empire?), but most of the symbolism is predictable and limited. Chris’s William, meanwhile, gets to reveal his own princely mettle in a thrilling, no-holds-barred encounter with Charles, during which he delivers a passionate, audience-pleasing denunciation of his father’s shabby treatment of Diana, his mother. What’s more, he opens up these shuttered psyches by means of language, structure and theatrical devices that brazenly imitate those of one (gulp!) William Shakespeare.
Bartlett, known best in these parts as the author of “Cock,” a play about the psychological battle for the heart of a man of vacillating sexual preferences, counts this time on an audience that is invested heavily in the classics or the royals. The most basic outline is this: Following his mother’s death, Charles instantaneously makes a decision to veto a parliamentary bill which would strengthen the privacy rights of individuals. It is a tragic work in its own right, about a man who has too long been denied power (“My life has been a ling’ring for the throne,” Charles says, in one of Bartlett’s better lines) and finds that once he gets it, he wants even more. In the new king’s opinion, it would also limit the freedom of British’s notoriously sleazy media, and he’s willing to intervene in unprecedented ways to make sure that doesn’t happen. Bartlett takes a far less sentimental approach than did screenwriter/playwright Peter Morgan in the Mirren vehicles; he demands of an audience a more sophisticated understanding of how a constitutional monarchy functions, and expects us to have some intellectual curiosity about this eccentric man, nearing 70, who’s been waiting his entire life to take the throne.
When the prime minister evokes the name of his ex-wife to persuade the king to consider the press’ bloodlust with more depth, he replies, “That’s bold. What could have been only a cleverly executed stunt is instead an intellectually and emotionally gripping study of the strangely enduring anachronism that is the British monarchy and of the contemporary, star-struck world that can still find room for its royals.
Pigott-Smith doesn’t look a thing like the actual Charles, but he movingly conveys the strength and weakness that war within Bartlett’s conception of the man. And boy, does he have a deft way with a soliloquy. (I don’t need to see Lear again, but I’d see his.) Wilson knows how to replace Kate’s simper with steel while Goulding, appropriately ginger-haired, nicely conveys Harry’s blokeish yearning. Having had the king throw the question of his power in their faces, the prime minster (Adam James) and Parliament set out to squash him and the monarchy once and for all. Prototypes of plot, imagery and character from not only “Hamlet” but also “Richard II,” “Richard III,” “Henry IV” and “Macbeth” are invoked with droll yet illuminating precision as we follow the fortunes of Charles and his family.
The deceased princess makes two appearances as a phantom (played by Sally Scott), once haunting Charles in Buckingham Palace and later her eldest son William. Though the actors portraying the other well-known royals bear strong physical resemblances to their real-life counterparts, Pigott-Smith looks nothing like Charles. That’s because in his perplexed and troubled countenance he makes the tragic dimension of Charles’s imagined reign feel so compellingly inevitable. Queen Elizabeth was opposed to Britain’s involvement in the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a fact which then-prime minister Tony Blair completely ignored while cheerleading for George W.
Given the generous spirit this Charles shows, especially toward the sons he professes to want close by, Pigott-Smith’s character does seem a more emotionally available variation on the real man. Bush. (Blair recently apologized.) The King Charles of this play stands on principle, even if it should cause instability within his family and country, partly as an overreaction to his mother’s general apathy towards her purely ceremonial job. If the tax-payer-funded royal family is to remain a relevant force in Britain’s historical legacy, Charles argues, it needs to contribute to something other than magazine and newspaper covers. (The play’s one subplot which doesn’t quite click, incidentally, concerns a girlfriend of Harry’s who is smeared by the British papers; it reinforces points better made elsewhere in the text.) The production itself — including a cold-to-the-touch set, evocative costumes by Tom Scott, and a deliciously spooky musical score by Eyes Wide Shut composer Jocelyn Pook — perfectly matches the text’s unassuming yet rebellious attitude.
Paralleling Charles’s quest for selfhood is that of a bewildered Prince Harry, whose hedonistic lifestyle is not unlike that of Prince Hal in the “Henry IV” plays. And flawlessly in synch with Bartlett’s confidence and light-footed perversity is the extraordinary Piggot-Smith, whose performance as Charles will almost certainly win the actor a Tony Award next year. But instead of being in thrall to a Falstaff, he falls in love with a socialist art student, Jess (Tafline Steen), and the wide-open world of commoners.
The role is a blender puree of Shakespeare’s leading men and Pigott-Smith, with a remarkable degree of sensitivity and a merciful absence of snark, locates the bumblingly human element in Charles that makes him a sympathetic, Lear-like figure, especially in the play’s second act. In the meantime, Prince William and his sharp-witted, strong-willed wife, Kate, try their best to ensure the future of the throne that will eventually be theirs. Other supporting performances are exceptional, too, from Tafline Steen’s turn as an anti-monarchist art student Harry falls for, to Miles Richardson’s portrayal of a royal handler whose survival skills are better-honed than his king’s.
Conforming to the status quo, according to Shakespeare’s template, is the worst virtue, and to wit, Bartlett reserves his cynicism for the next generation of William, Kate and Harry, whose dubious parentage is even brought up. This sensibility is richly yet efficiently conveyed by Tom Scutt’s ancient-looking, cathedral-like set and contemporary costumes; Jon Clark’s lighting, which shifts between phantasmal shadows and flashbulb brightness; and Jocelyn Pook’s ceremonial music.
Though it was certainly never intended as such, Bartlett’s text is also a boost to the recent argument (ignited by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) for presenting the Bard’s work in modern vernacular. Playing people whose job is to maintain facades, these performers endow their characters with a canny self-awareness and a tellingly varied gift for balancing shell and substance.
Charles’s tragedy is that he’s a prisoner of an ivory-tower notion of royalty as much as Shakespeare’s medieval figurine of a king, Richard II, was. And like Richard, he finds himself pitted against a usurping Bolingbroke, who understands that for the monarchy to survive, it has to accommodate changing times and the juggernaut of realpolitik. Watching King Richard III is like looking at the topographical landscape of a familiar world, one which we faintly recognize despite not having yet seen.
Wilson as a sane and even salutary Lady Macbeth type, who knows full well that it’s those who master the photo op who really rule the public in “a world of surfaces.” Charles, alas, refuses to accept such reductionism.
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