If you haven’t heard of Charles III of Britain, don’t berate yourself. He hasn’t happened yet, but playwright Mike Bartlett has conjured up what might happen if and when Queen Elizabeth leaves us while heir to the throne Charles is still capable of ascending to it.
Mr.Bartlett has conjured very well in turning out an absorbing family drama about a very interesting family, a fiction that sounds scarily real. They are all there — Charles and his wife Camilla, sons William and Harry by the late Princess Diana, a Prime Minister and the leader in Parliament of the opposition. A favorite lady in Prince Harry’s life is present, as is William’s wife Kate, and it’s all written in blank verse and superbly played by Tim Pigott-Smith and most of the principals from the British production, which was a great success on the home turf, where it won the Olivier Award as Best Play.
If the plot sounds like something Will Shakespeare might have dreamed up, that’s no accident. Mr. Bartlett’s royal family rivals any of those the Bard employed, and his story revolves around a decision by Charles to put his seal upon a document forced on him by a parliament that favors his son William. The arguments in its favor are beautifully presented by William, and Charles’ rebuttal is powerful and pitiful, which makes for very compelling theatre. When the director, playwright and actors are up to this challenge, as they are here, the audience is in for a real and rare treat. The palace designed by Tom Scutt could well serve as Elsinore and there is even a ghost (Diana) to whisper advice to Charles, with major contributions by all of the principals, each of whom is given a scene or two in which to shine.
As King Charles, who is crowned at the top of the play after a Requiem for his mother, Tim Piggott-Smith brings both power and tenderness to the monarch who’d waited 50 years for the opportunity to prove his worth. It’s interesting to listen to the words these characters use, for all of them are reticent to discuss their feelings in real life. Mr. Bartlett has bravely imagined what these feelings are, what these unspoken thoughts convey. This is not the puff piece that might attract a visit from its character’s real life counterparts. I doubt that Queen Elizabeth, who is still very much around, will drop in to see this play at a charity matinée, just to glimpse her family on stage. But Mr. Bartlett’s version of them rings true, and each viewpoint is eloquently written and played by this superb company.
Prince William comes alive in Oliver Chris’ performance. He’s tall and elegant, much like the original William, and his courage in defying his father’s thoughts on duty and obligation is palpable. The presence of his bride, the former Kate Middleton, as played by the attractive Lydia Wilson, is helpful as she uses her considerable charms as well as her very bright mind to influence her husband. His younger brother Harry, again cast to type, is captured beautifully by Richard Goulding, who was nominated for an Olivier award for his performance in England, does a fine job of showing us the rebel as well as the responsible royal. The girl who almost upsets his apple cart is a hellcat socialist art student, and Tafline Steen plays her as a most believable mate for the irrepressible Harry.
The Prime Minister was played by Adam James and he was fine. At the performance I attended, the leader of the conservative opposition party was played by the understudy, Peter Bradbury, an American actor, and without advice in the program, I would never have noticed that he was replacing someone. He managed to make his character (“Mr. Stevens”) properly shaded, and the ensemble retained its unity of style.
King Charles III is presumptuous, audacious, literate, fun. What more can we ask of a play?
Running Time: Two hour and 30 minutes, and an intermission.