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Giving the current British royal family a witty Shakespearean remix, this inspired speculative drama strikes a tone somewhere between affectionate satire and treasonous polemic. Newly transferred to London’s West End following a sell-out debut run at the Almeida Theatre in the spring, King Charles III is anchored in a powerhouse performance by Tim Pigott-Smith as Prince Charles. But he is buoyed along by a colorful throng of real-life supporting characters including Prince William, Prince Harry, Kate Middleton, Camilla Parker-Bowles and even a ghostly cameo by the late Lady Diana Spencer.
Director Rupert Goold and writer Mike Bartlett have previously worked together on Earthquakes in London and Decade. Currently the Almeida’s artistic director, Goold also has a long track record of critical hits and West End transfers including Enron, The Effect and the American Psycho musical, which is now rumored to be heading for Broadway after plans for an Off-Broadway run were dropped. Even if his latest production risks boring non-Brit audiences with its forensic examination of dusty royal protocol, the smart jokes and family soap opera elements should have broader appeal. The global success of films like The Queen, The King’s Speech and Peter Morgan‘s Broadway-bound The Audience all point to transatlantic export potential.
King Charles III is billed as a “future history play”, one of countless knowing homages to Shakespeare. Tom Scutt‘s single set is an imposing brick-walled chamber which mostly serves as a Buckingham Palace interior but could just as easily pass for the haunted corridors of Elsinore or Dunsinane. Jocelyn Pook‘s stately musical interludes have a ceremonial quality that echo Michael Nyman‘s artful historical pastiches. Most strikingly, the dialogue is largely written in a loose form of Shakespearean blank verse, which works surprisingly well and lends an agreeable musicality to the speech-heavy format.
It begins with an ending: the solemn funeral requiem for England’s current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, all choreographed ritual and emotional restraint. Finally promoted to the throne after decades waiting in the wings, an ageing Prince Charles (Pigott-Smith) begins to flex long-dormant muscles, taking a principled stand by refusing to endorse a new government bill limiting press freedom. Though the royal rubber stamp on state laws has been a mere formality for centuries, the new king’s intransigence plunges parliament into constitutional crisis and sets him on a collision course with his slick, Tony Blair-like Prime Minister (Adam James).
After weeks of deadlock, the government forces through historic new rules scrapping royal involvement in any future law-making. Charles responds by storming Westminster in full military regalia, looking bizarrely like General Pinochet, and invoking his ancient powers to dissolve parliament. The crisis escalates into angry street demonstrations and talk of civil war, with tanks parked outside Buckingham Palace and dark plots whispered within. The endgame is a kind of elegant coup d’etat designed to restore the royal family’s status as a toothless celebrity brand motivated only by its own self-preservation.
Pigott-Smith rightly avoids a straight impersonation of Charles, instead merely hinting at his stiff body language and clenched-teeth vocal mannerisms. His layered performance makes the ageing prince sympathetic, vain and pompous at times but also articulate and conscientious. Struggling for relevance in a modern world that does not need him, he ultimately strikes a tone of Lear-like tragedy. King for a day, schmuck for a lifetime.
The Shakespearean allusions deepen as the play progresses. There are clear echoes of Prince Hal in Harry (Richard Goulding), an immature playboy who dreams of escaping his gilded cage and joining the common people, led by his anti-monarchy art-student girlfriend Jessica (Tafline Steen). Harry is the most cartoonish character here, a court jester in his own royal court.
Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth finds her modern-day counterpart in Kate Middleton, superbly played with a hint of serene malice by Lydia Wilson. On the surface, Kate is an immaculately polished Stepford Wife to the smart but easily manipulated William (Oliver Chris). But underneath, she is a subversive outsider who is secretly disgusted by the entitled white males of the British establishment, yet wily enough to use the master’s tools against him. Bartlett hints at parallels with Lady Diana in this mischievous psychological portrait, but never quite connects the dots.
Dense, rich and surprisingly serious about the business of monarchy, King Charles III barely falters over its two-hours-plus running time. That said, Harry’s republican girlfriend is too thinly written, while her forced exit from the drama feels contrived and schematic. Steen, who has the looks and mannerisms of a young Helena Bonham Carter, deserves more room to shine. The second act also gets a little too bogged down in arcane royal scholarship, and the final crescendo of vengeful treachery feels incongruously melodramatic after such a nuanced, discursive journey.
Minor quibbles aside, King Charles III is consistently amusing and impressively even-handed. It does not pillory the Windsors for easy laughs, but nor is it a veiled apology for royalty either. Instead, it artfully exposes the impossible dilemma of monarchy in the 21st century. With real political power, a king is a menace to democracy. Without power, a pointless ceremonial waxwork. Bartlett and Goold leave us to draw our own conclusions.
Cast: Tim Pigott-Smith, Oliver Chris, Katie Brayben, Richard Goulding, Nyasha Hatendi, Lydia Wilson, Adam James, Margot Leicester, Miles Richardson, Tom Robertson,Tafline Steen
Playwright: Mike Bartlett
Director: Rupert Goold
Producer: Sonia Freedman
Set & costume designer: Tom Scutt
Lighting designer: Jon Clark
Music: Jocelyn Pook
Movement director: Anna Morrissey
Sound designer: Paul Arditti
Presented by Sonia Friedman Productions, Stuart Thompson Productions, Almeida Theatre, in association with Lee Dean & Charles Diamond, Tulchin Bartner Productions
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