'King Charles III': Theater Review

King Charles III Production Still - H 2015
Joan Marcus

King Charles III Production Still - H 2015

A compelling game of thrones.

Mike Bartlett imagines a near future in which Britain's royal heir, played by Tim Pigott-Smith, struggles to claim the crown after decades of waiting in the wings.

Anyone old enough to remember Tim Pigott-Smith in the 1984 British television classic, Jewel in the Crown, will likely feel a frisson of satisfaction when the actor, playing the title role in King Charles III, lashes into Prince William about the tendency of the young to patronize rather than support their elders. But don't get too comfortable. That takedown of youthful superiority is slowly negated by crushing reality as the treachery of Mike Bartlett's ingenious "future history play" kicks in, turning this ballsy faux Shakespearean exercise from sardonic provocation into gut-wrenching tragedy.

An Olivier Award-winning hit in London's West End, where it transferred from the Almeida Theatre, the play arrives on Broadway the same year as Peter Morgan's The Audience, which starred Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, chronicling six decades of weekly meetings with her Prime Ministers. King Charles III, a fantasy set in the immediate wake of Elizabeth's death, is an ideal companion piece.

However, Morgan's play is a reassuring endorsement of the constancy of the British sovereign, while Bartlett offers a fiendishly clever and yet serious questioning of the role of royalty in the 21st century. And lest anyone fear that this is all too English for American tastes, a concluding note about the "pretty plastic picture" of a monarchy with no meaning would seem eminently relatable to a culture that's content to anoint Kanye and Kim as its king and queen. The play makes savvy points about the supreme power of column inches and the value placed on the rule of popularity above all else.

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Stiff reverence was never to be expected from a playwright who landed on the map with a punchy exploration of sexual fluidity, bluntly titled Cock. In place of that 2009 breakout work's terse language, King Charles III is written largely in blank verse, which might sound like a cumbersome affectation. But in Rupert Goold's expertly crafted production it hums with the music of conversation and often-heated debate, occasional rhyming couplets and all. And the allusions to Shakespeare — Pigott-Smith's Charles has echoes of royalty from Hamlet through Richard II and the Henrys to Lear, while counterparts of Prince Hal and Lady Macbeth figure elsewhere — are woven into the characters and themes, not part of some distracting spot-the-reference game.

Designer Tom Scutt's single set is an austere brick-walled chamber with a carpeted dais and a frieze depicting the anxious populace. It deftly represents the Westminster Abbey burial vault to which the Queen has been consigned at the start of the play, as well as the interiors of Buckingham Palace and other halls of power back through history.

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Goold opens with a procession accompanied by composer Jocelyn Pook's solemn Requiem, with the cast serving as choir. It's an arresting beginning, marred only slightly by early (and misleading) hints of jokiness in Bartlett's speculative fiction. There's something a little too easy about the humor of a bereaved Charles acknowledging the sense of fashion and good hair of Katherine, Duchess of Cambridge (Lydia Wilson); the pushy insistence of Camilla (Margot Leicester) that coronation is a mere formality; Prince Harry (Richard Goulding) staggering in like a wasted rock star; or Charles pouring tea for the Prime Minister and adopting the familiar British-ism, "Shall I be mother?" However, the playwright goes on to reveal that these famous figures are not in fact cartoon versions of their public personae.

Taking his cue from the News Corp. phone-hacking scandal, Bartlett lays careful groundwork for a surprisingly gripping and original political thriller, told with as much compassion as cynicism. The slippery political machinations become evident once Charles hesitates before giving his rubber-stamp approval to a new privacy legislation that would encroach upon the freedom of the press. Ironically, his own relationship with the news media has been famously thorny, but Charles is a man of conscience who believes his actions must count for something and not be purely symbolic. He fears that the new law will pave the way for government censorship and corruption.

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The Labour P.M., Mr. Evans (Adam James), is an anti-royalist, outraged about the new king overstepping his mark, while the sly Conservative opposition leader, Stevens (Anthony Calf), privately agrees despite having been instrumental in fueling the discord. What follows is a clash between Crown and State in which the constitution is challenged, sparking a popular uprising, internal dissent and betrayal, not to mention wild talk of civil war.

Goold depicts this ferment with anti-monarchist protesters in Guy Fawkes masks, while a cowering figure wears a Charles mask that borrows from the iconic 1980s Brit TV satirical puppet show Spitting Image. It's a useful reminder that the play's title character, perhaps more than any other royal, has often been an object of public mockery, fed by his perceived mistreatment of Princess Diana. That absent mother to Will and Harry appears, in a familiar Shakespearean trope, as a ghost (Sally Scott, nailing the demure head tilt and whispery voice), cryptically exhorting both her former husband and their eldest son to be "the greatest King."

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While there are interludes of pageantry that mark key turning points, what's most notable about Goold's direction here is its restraint. Unlike his hyperkinetic productions of Macbeth, with Patrick Stewart, or Enron, which tanked on Broadway after much London success, the focus is not on spectacle or tricks, but on the writing. Despite the entertaining theatricality of its language, the play is ultimately more notable for its depth of character and moral complexity, especially as concerns the key figures of Charles, William, Kate and Harry.

The latter travels perhaps the most surprising arc, traced with sensitivity by Goulding. Giddy with the influence of his anti-establishment art student girlfriend (Tafline Steen, terrific), Harry evolves from weary party boy, reconciled to his role as "a ginger joke," to discover a nobility of the soul much like his father's — if similarly deluded. As William, Chris strikes a fine balance between dutiful devotion and self-preserving guile, particularly in his bracing confrontations with Charles. And Bartlett's subversive masterstroke was to take Kate, Britain's national sweetheart, and twist her into a cool-headed manipulator, her ambition driven in part by resentment over the bias toward privileged white men dominating "these little rooms of power." While Wilson shrewdly underplays the villainy, Kate's kinship with one of Shakespeare's most indelible female characters will escape no one.

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There are incisive characterizations from James and Calf as the respective political party heads — Evans jumpy and belligerent, Stevens all oily upper-class composure — and from Miles Richardson as the royal press secretary, whose personal loyalty proves more malleable than his institutional responsibilities.

However, the majestically human central performance without which the conceit would crumble is Pigott-Smith's as Charles, wisely sidestepping impersonation for more nuanced character study. In his first moments onstage, he stands ramrod-straight though seems somewhat absent, pondering the hollowness of a life without the parents who have been his foundation. Then, as he contemplates the position that awaits him, there's searing poignancy in his admission of fearing "the awful shame of failure." His conviction as he stands up for what he believes in is stirring, even more so as he remains intractable, still unwilling to sacrifice his misguided values once he knows he can't win. That makes him a figure of enormous pathos and lends Shakespearean dimensions to the play's chilling finale.

Cast: Tim Pigott-Smith, Anthony Calf, Oliver Chris, Richard Goulding, Nyasha Hatendi, Adam James, Margot Leicester, Miles Richardson, Tom Robertson, Sally Scott, Tafline Steen, Lydia Wilson
Director: Rupert Goold
Playwright: Mike Bartlett
Set & costume designer: Tom Scutt
Lighting designer: Jon Clark
Music: Jocelyn Pook
Sound designer: Paul Arditti
Presented by Stuart Thompson, Sonia Friedman, Almeida Theatre, Robert G. Bartner, Norman Tulchin, Lee Dean & Charles Diamond, Scott M. Delman, Ruth Hendel, Stephanie P. McClelland, Jon B. Platt, Scott Rudin, Richard Winkler, Zeilinger Productions, The Shubert Organization