The Short Version: The Queen is dead – long live the King? Written in the style of a Shakespearean history play, Mike Bartlett imagines what might happen if Prince Charles were to ascend to the throne right now and what such a moment might mean for Britain, for the monarchy, and for a family that’s never not known power.
The Review: It should come as no surprise to long-time readers that I am an Anglophile. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love my country – but I also love tea, the Queen, the Tube, a nationalized healthcare system that works, and funding for the arts. The consistently strong theater, especially, tends to dominate my every visit to London and I regret that I’ll miss this fascinating play on stage.
Luckily, working as I do at a major theater company, scripts often pass through and I sometimes get the chance to nab them before they fall into the void. Enter King Charles III.
The Royal Family is, of course, the first family of reality TV – long before there were Kardashians or Hiltons to care about, we had the Windsors. Kate & William’s wedding was a whole event, as was the birth of the wee baby George, and as dear Queen Elizabeth soldiers on, we can’t help but wonder about the next big events that’ll happen at Westminster Abbey: the funeral and the coronation. Will Charles, eternally in-waiting, ascend to the throne for a handful of years? Or will he allow his son to rule instead, ensuring another long-reigning monarch of immense popularity?
Bartlett’s play assumes the former and places the moment in question just a few years down the line from now. His Prime Minister is not David Cameron and it is implied that a Liberal government has come back into power – but I don’t think either the PM or the opposition leader are meant to be real individuals like the Royal Family. But there’s a question of how realistic we’re expected to believe the royals to be, too. Sure, there are the expected moments – William and Kate being an adorable power-couple, Harry off being Harry, Camilla being vaguely Lady Macbeth-ish while also just being kind of annoying – but I think that Bartlett, much like Shakespeare before him, is drawing on grander caricatures of the individuals in order to tell the best story.
And speaking of drawing on Shakespeare: this is one of the most accomplished pastiches of Shakespeare I’ve ever seen. There are no winking asides to famous lines from the canon but, instead, characters fit into Shakespearean archetypes (in that Shakespearean archetypes are actually pretty much just the way people act): Harry is just like young Hal and (interestingly) speaks almost always in prose until he meets Jess, Charles has elements of all the great conflicted heroes from Hamlet to Macbeth, there’s a ghostly vision, etc etc. Bartlett then allows modern speech to dance with the rhythms of iambic pentameter, one bending to the other when necessary – but he never forces it. Instead, we get the sense that this is a play that knows where it came from but also knows that it is of this moment. It’s a remarkable kind of self-awareness on the part of the playwright and, having seen plenty of people try really hard to be Shakespeare, it’s damned refreshing.
It’s not just the writing, though: it’s the plot. And Bartlett makes some surprising choices – thought-provoking ones, too. The crux of the play revolves around Charles – not yet actually crowned, we’re still in the transitional period (even though, as someone points out, he technically became King the minute his mother died) and Parliament tries to put a little pressure on him. For those who are unfamiliar with the British political system (a weakness of the play for an American audience is that it does get a bit wonkish at times), the monarch has mostly a ceremonial role these days – but they do get to sign each bill that comes through from Parliament, giving it their assent. Charles, faced with the first bill – a bill that restricts freedom of the press – decides to withhold his assent and this sparks a crisis of power. Technically, it can’t be a law without the monarch’s assent, although Parliament can override the monarch with a vote… and without giving too much away, this becomes a massive debate about the efficacy of a monarchy in the 21st Century. We look at them as a figurehead these days, because who actually is ruled by a sovereign anymore, but should that mean that they’re not involved at all? Charles makes strong points in his disagreement with the bill – but should his voice be heard in a special way?
Harry’s subplot matches up with this a little and I almost feel bad for him having been saddled with a plot that could easily have been an A-plot but is, instead, relegated to the B, almost C-plot. He meets a commoner (like, a proper commoner, not a Kate commoner) and falls for her – but it turns out she’s basically an anti-monarchist. And watching Harry struggle, as we have all watched over the course of his life, with the odd brand of fame and infamy that comes from being a royal scion makes for compelling theater, even if he and Jess are both drawn a little too broadly at times.
Indeed, the whole play is gripping from start to finish. It raises questions that should be grappled with – about the press, about government, about individual desire vs. the will of the masses vs. expectations of others…. it’s the sort of thing that, yes, Shakespeare did: he took a story that wasn’t the present and used it to talk about what was present. Here, Mike Bartlett has taken a story that hasn’t happened yet and used it to talk about what we should consider once it does happen. Our best theater can achieve this and I look forward to reality catching up to art.
Rating: 4 out of 5. There are a few moments where things are a little too broadly brushed and several moments that are meant, I think, to be seen onstage as opposed to just read on the page. But since I’m likely going to miss the celebrated Almeida production when it transfers to the West End – and since I can’t really imagine this play succeeding at any major theaters in this country – the page will have to do. It’s a thought-provoking play, a damn good one, and it simultaneously pays homage to the stylings and craft of those who’ve come before (Shakespeare especially) while also remaining vitally of-the-present-moment.