The Crowning Achievement of Broadway: “King Charles III”

Tim Pigott-Smith in the title role in Mike Bartlett's King Charles III. Photos by Joan Marcus.

Supposedly, come Apr. 23, 2016, William Shakespeare will have been dead for 400 years. But maybe we’ve been misinformed? It had been widely agreed that the Stratford-upon-Avon scribe wrote 37 plays, but from all appearances he’s just penned his 38th.

It’s an addition to his fiery history plays and called King Charles III, and it’s not running at the Globe, but on Broadway, at the Music Box. Shakespeare has written it under the name Mike Bartlett, evidently appropriated from the clever bloke who prior penned, among other things, the recently successful stateside plays Cock and Bull.

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The history he’s dramatizing now is the period after the death of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles’s troubled ascension to the throne. It’s written it so that even spectators only mildly familiar with the canon of Shakespeare will pick up on themes and similarities to King Lear, Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV Parts I and II, Hamlet and, most of all, Macbeth. (Not since Barbara Garson’s Macbird has anyone tickled the latter tragedy quite so cheerfully.)

Prince Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith) is three months away from the formalities of his crowning and investiture when he reads a bill severely limiting, as he sees it, freedom of the press. The bill has already passed in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Though aware he’s expected to sign it pro forma, he has second thoughts that lead to his refusing to do so.

Tafline Steen as Jess and Richard Goulding as Prince Harry.
Tafline Steen as Jess and Richard Goulding as Prince Harry.

While his second wife, Duchess Camilla (Margot Leicester), is behind anything Charles chooses to do and points out that his decision isn’t unconstitutional because Great Britain, in fact, has no constitution, others have grave problems with such an unprecedented action. When Charles disbands Parliament — as is his legal right — they become severely unsettled.

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Those most pointedly taking issue with Charles’ action are his oldest son, Prince William (Oliver Chris), whose succession prospects will vanish if there is no more monarchy, and his wife Kate (Lydia Wilson), the Duchess of Cambridge, who’s as loyal to William as Camilla is to Charles. Prime Minister Evans (Adam James) does not support Charles; while Tory party leader Mr. Stevens (Anthony Calf) does so behind closed doors, Stevens publicly denounces the king.

As these conflicts mount, Bartlett inserts a secondary plot involving ginger-haired Prince Harry (Richard Goulding), who meets and falls in love with self-proclaimed revolutionary and young-woman-of-the-people Jess (Tafline Steen). Completely committed to overthrowing the government, Jess, an artist in her spare time, convinces Harry to renounce his duties and live as a common man. It’s a decision he declares to his father — and against the intentions of stern Palace spin doctor James Reiss (Miles Richardson).

Where this all leads is too thought-provoking, too explosive and too outright entertaining to be described in more detail. But for those familiar with Hamlet’s encounter with his father’s ghost, and the three witches in Macbeth, you’ll sit up when the ghost of Princess Diana (Sally Scott) appears to both Charles and William.

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Lydia Wilson as Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge and Pigott-Smith.
Lydia Wilson as Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, and Pigott-Smith.

And for those who recall Lady Macbeth insisting that her husband have more gumption about becoming the great king he’s been told he’ll be, you’ll know you’re in Shakespeare territory. The same for those who recognize the famous King Lear phrase “nothing comes of nothing,” or remember Richard II being ousted from his throne through the machinations of those he’s subjected to his convictions. Ditto Prince Hal’s debauchery in Henry IV Part I — as echoed in this Prince Harry’s hang-outs.

Dramatist Bartlett — why not go along with the Bard’s subterfuge? notice the repeated “Bar”? — also sets his tragedy forth in Shakespeare’s gossamer language, although he avoids any “fie,” “in sooth” or “zounds.” Many lines are composed in Shakespearean iambic pentameters, and the playwright takes pleasure in ending scenes with rhymed couplets.

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Not that he calls attention to it. As with the best Shakespeare dialogue, what’s heard comes across like conversation between men and woman who can readily draw on large vocabularies. Plus there’s no shortage of soliloquies. William gets a significant one. So does Kate — a feminist call redolent of Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me now.”

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As Charles sees his primogeniture jeopardized, he has several straight-out addresses, which Pigott-Smith plays with increasingly crumbling majesty. In set-and-costume designer Tom Scutt’s military regalia (when not in a dark business suit, signifying national mourning), he’s unremittingly kingly. Later, the actor captures the bafflement of Lear, Macbeth, Richard II, Richard III, Edward IV, et. al., when the world into which his character has been born shudders and vanishes.

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The persuasive grand manner with which the cast members perform as if vitalizing Shakespeare (including Nyasha Hatendi and Tom Robertson in three roles each) is notable. With only two exceptions, this is the troupe that opened King Charles III at London’s Almeida and then moved to Wyndham’s in the East End.

To be or not to be...king?
To be or not to be…king?

They’re also directed by Almeida artistic director Rupert Goold, whose previous Broadway outings include the ultra-bloody Macbeth and the underrated Enron. It’s rare that Goold doesn’t maximize a script’s potential. He does it here and look for him to do it again later this season when the musicalized American Psycho arrives.

Aside from the project having started at the Almeida, the same theater’s stamp is on this production visually. Scutt recreates a version of its stage: a semi-circular brick wall suggesting an old, unadorned, tenebrous castle. (Something similar was done when the Almeida revived Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.) Scutt also runs a strip around the wall about eight to nine feet high and two to three feet wide that is painted to indicate the blurred heads of a massing populace. It’s especially effective when angry crowds are gathering and Charles orders a tank to be parked in the Buckingham Palace courtyard facing the Mall.

The only other furnishings, aside from the occasional throne or desk, are stacked risers carpeted in red on which the characters carry on, and where, at times, the troupe performs candle-lit ritualistic ceremonies to Jocelyn Pook’s mass-referential music.

In the past several London theater seasons, at least three prominent plays have dealt with how Great Britain is governed. In addition to King Charles III, there’s Peter Morgan’s The Audience, imported here last season starring Dame Helen Mirren, and James Graham’s This House, which ought to be important here soon. These plays are catnip to British audiences, who adore learning anything insider-y about how their country runs.

American audiences aren’t always as likely to be as electrified as their other-side-of-the-Atlantic counterparts, but Bartlett’s bold play remains utterly irresistible, a must-see.