Broadway, New Play
By Mike Bartlett; Directed by Rupert Goold
The Music Box, 239 West 45th Street Tickets $37-149
Runs through 31 January 2016
BOTTOM LINE: King Charles III is a new classic.
If you’re following the soon-to-be-obscure theater news like this theater nerd is, you’ll most certainly have heard of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s attempt to “translate” all of the plays attributed to Shakespeare with exciting, contemporary playwrights and dramaturgs. If the battle on my Twitter feed is any indication, some people are pissed. Others champion the endeavor in an attempt to find something new in these plays. In the same realm, but doing something entirely new, King Charles III by Mike Bartlett heads into uncharted territory by creating a brand new play with all the delicious components of Shakespeare’s history plays to construct an imagined story of the reign of the next King of England, and a critical examination of what it means to be a king in the twenty-first century.
King Charles III is billed as a drama. I’m here to embarrassingly report that I was the only one, it seemed, laughing most of the way through. Bartlett’s clever script is so enormously referential to the form of Shakespeare’s history plays it’s hard not to see this as a thing very aware of the loving, sensitive mockery it is making.
Tom Scutt’s scenic design presents to us a drab, high walled set indicating a royal room from any time between the Magna Carta signing and 2019. It’s even flanked at its four corners with flame torchers dotting the perimeter like the columns of Mr. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. There are ghosts—those of the late Princess Diana and, briefly, the Queen herself—appearing to haunt and incite the driving force of the play. “You will be the greatest king ever” is the mantra. Trouble is, it’s repeated to two different men. There’s royal infighting. The other side disagrees and evil-doings are planned. There's a lot of dudes. There are quick paced scenes, deliberate character introductions and exposition, and beautifully conceived soliloquies, on contemporary matters such as Kate Middleton’s precariously awkward position as heir-maker extraordinaire.
King Charles III is a roaring success that seems almost as implausible on paper as “translating” Shakespeare does. In performance, it’s wonderful.
Bartlett’s other works includes the illustriously titled Cock and Bull, both successful plays in their own right, the former with a much lauded and extended run that played off Broadway after a run at the Royal Court in 2012. Bartlett is smart; his plays are filled with nuanced, biting, oft-times hilarious satire, rich with challenging material for an actor and workouts for audiences.
Here, Bartlett has written almost entirely in verse. Yes, iambic pentameter verse. If you fell asleep in your high school English class, that’s the writing pattern used by Shakespeare that is said to mimic a natural speech pattern but naturally to our ears compels a kind of forward-leaning listening as if something important is about to happen. The lines jerk us forward; ends of scenes poetically finish then lurch onward, directed sharply by Rupert Goold.
The play is exactly right for now. This is a “future history play.” That is to say, a made-up one. Queen Elizabeth II can’t have too many years ahead and soon we will indeed be in the reign of King Charles III. Americans are obsessed with the royals in different, less direct ways than the Brits, as Kate Middleton can barely sneeze without a news bulletin. Bartlett has tapped into this growing interest and the cause for uncertainty a new ruler will bring after some sixty-some-years of this Queen.
Charles (a gentle, empathic Tim Pigott-Smith) ascends the throne and is preparing for his coronation. He is approached by the Prime Minister Mr. Stevens (Anthony Calf) to sign a new bit of legislation passed by Parliament that would limit the need for the antiquated, ceremonial participation of royalty in the political process. Charles is expected to sign, as Elizabeth signed everything, even the things she disagreed with. He does not and instead asserts authority his mother never had, immediately differentiating and distancing his new reign. Charles’s confidant (so tellingly mocked) Camilla (a perfect Margot Leicester) approves of this power play while the rest of the family is suspicious: William (Oliver Chris) and Kate (Lydia Wilson) particularly, with an undecided Harry (played with essential, perfect angst by Richard Goulding).
What’s both wonderful and troubling is that this “history play” replaces the gutsy battles and murders with paper signings and fleeting mentions of Burger King. It’s a juxtaposition skillfully handled though somewhat disappointing in its low stakes. Goold is able to keep the momentum going despite this though who wouldn’t want to see Prince Harry ride into battle, wielding a sword in some War of the Roses’ style combat?
Furthermore, Goold’s direction uses no bells and whistles to tell this story, rather pulling out a bench and hand prop to transform a scene in a way that feels fitting for The Globe and enormously underwhelming in the theme park that has become Broadway. Right from the beginning, actors in black robes hold candles in choreographed formation with a tone so somber and so everyones-view-of-what-classical-theater-probably-is that I cackled inappropriately. And I suspect that Bartlett and Goold have their eye on this. (And I wondered if this quiet, American audience dutifully watching this blatant comedic act differed at all from its original British ones.)
King Charles III is a terrific offering for this Broadway season. It’s juicy, smart, and skilled. That said, I couldn’t recommend it for everyone. I suspect the larger-than-normal and noticeable “should we leave?” faces at intermission are an indication. There were some empty seats in Act II. Those that stay and thrive on this might be Shakespeare fans/appreciators. For them I say, get thee to see King Charles III.
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