They sure don’t make kings like they used to. And maybe that’s a good thing.
Mike Bartlett’s historical fantasy, King Charles III, based loosely (very loosely) on the current royal family of England, explores that very idea of “King” as it now stands on England’s “green and pleasant land.”
Half fun, half serious, half eloquent, half overly poetic, Bartlett’s Prince Charles (an unassuming Robert Joy) becomes King Charles III immediately after the death of Elizabeth II.
That’s where the play begins.
For American audiences, Kings (and Queens) are the stuff of fairytales, meant to be admired from afar, but never close up and personal.
For the English, apparently, the Royals are more endured than admired, and they should never get too close or too personal.
The play begins soon after Elizabeth’s death. Charles has yet to go through coronation; yet, he is still the king.
Parliament has a new law, however: Parliament, it seems, is fed up with the press and wants to limit its freedom. For an American audience, that’s a first amendment violation to be sure, but considering the state of our own constitution over the last decades….
Nevertheless, the English Prime Minister Evans (an aghast Ian Merrill Peakers) presents this law to Charles for his signature, which for centuries has been a mere formality.
The “King,” it seems, is no longer the living embodiment of God, but merely a crown, thin and golden, but without a soul to see.
Unfortunately for Charles III, his conscience is aroused. For him, the law is but a slippery slope that leads to tyranny: so what if the press in England, like the press in America, is more concerned with gossip and murder and sex and the “titillating” twitter of idiots than any “real” news.
So Charles refuses to sign the bill. He sends it back to Parliament for reconsideration.
Result: a political crisis that threatens to bring down five hundred years of constitutional monarchy in England.
In this time of political crisis in America, Charles III has a certain kind of resonance. Though not threatened by a king with a conscience, we are threatened by presidents with penchants for executive orders.
Fortunately, Bartlett’s political construction has familial repercussions.
Charles’ wife, Camilla (a fiercely protective Jeanne Paulsen), defends her husband’s adamant display of personality.
His sons, Prince William (a tall, Macbethian Christopher McLinden) and Prince Harry (an alienated Hal-ian Harry Smith), do their best to stay out of the political fray.
William’s wife, Kate (an elegant Kateian Allison Jean White), won’t tolerate the end of monarchy, however.
Harry’s commoner honey, Jessica (a rowdy Michelle Beck) truly wants nothing to do with kings and queens and princes and princesses. Unfortunately for her, dreams don’t come true.
As you can see, Charles III is a lively politically comic fantasy with a deeply satirical edge that combines Shakespeare with history with TV miniseries.
There truly is something for everyone.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
King Charles III plays through March 18, 2017, at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall – 610 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.
King Charles III at Shakespeare Theatre Company reviewed by by Sophia Howes.
Spine: King Charles III at The Shakespeare Theatre Company by Robert Michael Oliver.
In the Moment: ‘King Charles III’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company by David Siegel.