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Theatre in Review: King Charles III (Music Box Theatre)

Tim Pigott-Smith. Photo: Joan Marcus

Mike Bartlett has seen the future and it is chaotic. The government has been dissolved. Crowds are massing in violent protest. The army is in the streets, attempting to maintain order. People everywhere look frightened, and so they should be, for the atmosphere is laced with menace, anarchy threatens, and nobody knows what will happen next. I hasten to add that Bartlett is not writing about some banana republic or fledgling African democracy. This is the Great Britain of King Charles III.

The central conceit of Bartlett's play -- a curious mixture of social satire, catty sketch comedy, and Machiavellian power plays delivered in a neo-Shakespearian iambic pentameter -- is that Elizabeth II, who reigned even longer than her great-grandmother, Victoria, is dead. (She is mourned in a lengthy opening sequence that could easily be trimmed, to the benefit of Rupert Goold's production.) Now Charles, Prince of Wales for half a century, is at last, in his 70s, about to assume the role for which he spent a lifetime preparing. "I never thought I'd see her pass away," remarks Kate, spouse of Prince William. "I felt the same," says Charles, getting one of many laughs that shocks with its impertinence. Charles is aware that he has big shoes to fill. Preparing to serve tea to Mr. Evans, his Labour prime minister, he asks, with no small amount of irony, "Shall I be Mother?"

Indeed, Charles trembles at the thought of his new responsibilities: "My mother gained respect from all she'd seen./The blitz, she sat with Churchill, and met all/The most important figures of her years. / Who am I?" Rather more unbelievably, he seems to have no idea how he is supposed to function as a monarch. In his first audience with Mr. Evans, he learns of a press-muzzling bill that has already been passed, awaiting only the king's signature. You might think that if anyone wanted to put a leash on muckraking reporters, it would be Charles, who had his most private conversations printed in the popular press; instead, desperate to leave his mark, he requests that the bill be returned for more consideration. When his wishes are ignored, he sacks Parliament, sending the nation into a tailspin; soon there are tanks resting outside Buckingham Palace, Charles is denounced by the major political parties, and, as the ghost of Diana walks each night, encouraging dissension in the family ranks, even the king's loved ones begin to feel that drastic measures must be taken. By now, a play that began as a kind of sophisticated jest has become a sharp-elbowed political drama, as practically everyone in the supporting cast rushes to take advantage of the power vacuum created by Charles's petulant behavior.

(How times change: It was only thirty years ago that David Hare and Howard Brenton's Pravda, a satire about a Rupert Murdoch-like press baron, titillated theatregoers with a cameo by Queen Elizabeth, thus breaking a long-held taboo against depicting living members of the royal family on stage. In 1988, Alan Bennett took it further by making Elizabeth a lead character in A Question of Attribution, in which she fences verbally with the disgraced art appraiser (and Soviet spy) Anthony Blunt. Next came the Peter Morgan - Helen Mirren joint enterprise, earning acclaim on film and on stage with The Queen and The Audience. However, none of these works went as far as King Charles III, which imagines his reign as an out-and-out disaster, sowing division and dysfunction.

A work of considerable wit and high style, King Charles III is best enjoyed for the audacity of its conception, the formal brilliance of its verse dialogue, and a gallery of characters brought to life by an unusually gifted cast. Presiding over it all is Tim Pigott-Smith, whose Charles is a confounding, yet utterly convincing, mixture of self-doubt and arrogance. "We'll find no dignity in cov'ring up the way we feel," he says, early on, and indeed the entire United Kingdom comes to hang on each of his mood swings. Profoundly uncomfortable in his own skin, slightly infantilized by having spent the better part of a century as the Queen's son, and yet, convinced that he is meant to guide the nation "like a GPS on a car," he brazenly seizes power, then scrambles to justify his actions, frantically searching history books for legal precedents. Even in moments of weakness, his natural charisma commands the stage, yet there's real fear in his eyes as his enemies circle around him, seeking to depose him by any means necessary. This is an extraordinary, multifaceted portrait of the man who would be king, if only he could dispel the demons that drive him to make such terrible decisions.

The rest of the cast goes about their treacherous business with the ease of practiced backstabbers. Anthony Calf, his voice rarely rising above a silken murmur, is the Conservative Party leader who privately urges the King to act up, only to strike bemused poses in public. Oliver Chris is an appealing Prince William, who, pushed by his wife, Kate, comes to realize that only he can save the nation by putting an end to his father's reign. Richard Goulding is amusing and touching as Prince Harry, who, on a spree with a cheeky, pretty, young anti-monarchist, discovers the joys of common life -- including Leicester Square, cash machines, tube platforms, and TGI Friday's -- and decides he wants to abdicate. Adam James is the increasingly fed-up Labour prime minister, his genial manner hardening into pure steel as his attempts at managing the new king prove fruitless. Margot Leicester has several fine moments as Camilla, Charles' ever-loyal spouse, especially when she savagely denounces the bland, uncontroversial William and Kate as "the king and queen of column inches." Tafline Steen is a delight as the girl of Harry's dreams, a student "currently studying Islam's relationship to pornography." The evening is nearly stolen by Lydia Wilson's Kate, who, without ever sacrificing her photogenic smile and affable manner, quietly engineers Charles' political destruction. Gleefully spoofing her photo-ready manner -- especially her skill with that patented royal family hand-wave -- she chillingly makes clear that she means business: "But if I must put up with taunts, and make/So public everything I am, then I/Demand things for myself, I ask no less/Than power to achieve my will in fair/Exchange to total service to the state."

Kate's plan to unseat Charles is central to King Charles III, which probes the itchy, uncomfortable, and yet seemingly unbreakable dependency shared by the British public and its monarchy. The author laments that the Windsor dynasty exists as a kind of empty symbol of the nation, outmoded and slowed down by its elaborate trappings. At the same time, he nurses a sneaking suspicion that they are, in some strange way, essential to the nation's health. Funnily enough, Charles seems to earn the author's sympathy; he may represent his family's most recent spate of scandals, but there is something authentic in his frailty, especially compared to William and Kate, who succeed by behaving like mannequins on display. They are needed, says one minor character, a kebab seller, because his fellow citizens "don't know what Britain is anymore." This is the point where King Charles III starts to creak, just a bit. Britain has been losing its identity in books and plays for as long as America has been losing its innocence, which is to say forever, and, in its later stretches, the play occasionally seems tendentious, even a tad too certain of its importance.

The production design is also slightly mixed. Given that most of the play unfolds in palaces and other corridors of power, Tom Scutt's set, a crumbling brick surround, is rather puzzling, although the horizontal band containing faded portraits of (I think) monarchs is an evocative touch. In any case, it is lit with tremendous precision and -- even in the confines of a mostly white palette -- emotional variety, by Jon Clark. Scutt's costumes, almost all in black (for amourning), go a long way toward making each actor look like his or her real-life prototype. Paul Arditti's sound design ranges from ceremonial music to hip-hop; he also makes sly use of "Royals," the pop hit by the New Zealand-based singer/songwriter Lorde.

Even if King Charles III presents a less-than-fresh argument about the eerie persistence of royalty, chances are you'll be more than satisfied by the abundant talent on display. In addition to his assured handling of the cast, Goold makes the most of a scene in which various characters sign off on a document that solidifies Charles' fate, each one revealing something about his or her character through this simple act. And you are bound to be captivated by a final coronation ceremony that combines triumph and ruin in a single image. Whatever one's opinion of the monarchy, once again it provides the basis for richly entertaining theatre. -- David Barbour

(12 November 2015)

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