[EDITOR’S NOTE: I haven’t seen “King Charles III”, the limited-engagement play on Broadway that transferred from the West End, but I know three people who have, so ORB asked them to give you their impressions. I instructed them to feel free to give away the plot, as the pleasure of watching a drama unfold is often enhanced if one doesn’t have to hear the gears of the storyline grinding. I also asked them not to confine their musings to the perimeters of the stage. So here’s the show as seen by three sets of discriminating eyes. Let us know how you like this format.]
“Charles has spent decades contemplating his duties as monarch, and nothing, certainly not political realities, will get in the way of his iron integrity.”
By Tom Dean Phillips
“A Future History Play” by Mike Bartlett. Directed by Rupert Goold. Starring Tim Pigott-Smith (Charles), Anthony Calf (Mr. Stevens), Oliver Chris (William) Richard Goulding (Harry), Nyasha Hatendi (Spencer, Nick, Sir Gordon), Adam James (Mr. Evans), Margot Leicester (Camilla), Miles Richardson (James Reiss), Tafline Steen (Jess), Lydia Wilson (Kate).
Playwright Mike Bartlett has taken all we have read and think we know about the personalities and relationships of the British royal family and has written a clever political fantasia about them. Using the form of Shakespeare’s history pageants about the Plantagenets and Tudors, his characters speak in blank verse, express their innermost thoughts as monologs and marvel at the sight of a night-walking apparition–Princess Diana.
Some time in the very near future Prince Charles ascends to the throne after his mother has died and even before his coronation day precipitates a parliamentary crisis that divides the country. For him it is a matter of duty and of conscience. Determined yet vague, well-meaning, serious and ludicrous, Charles has spent decades contemplating his duties as monarch and nothing, certainly not political realities, will get in the way of his iron integrity. Camilla is supportive, William every inch a son and Princeling to be proud of and isn’t his wife Kate so much shrewder than she seems in the magazines? Poor lost Prince Harry is a bit of a worry, what with his insolent new girlfriend, but certainly everyone outside the family – the Labor Prime Minister, his Tory opposition, the palace PR handler, while seemingly pliable, have their own agendas. It is to Bartlett’s credit that he has written both an amusing contemporary political satire and an absorbing family melodrama that carries a bit of the hushed thrill of voyeurism. And by taking Charles seriously, by respecting him on his own terms while conceding the absurdity of his position, Bartlett comes close to making Charles a tragic figure and casualty of a modern world he would rather ignore.
As Charles, Tim Piggot-Smith creates a very credible and finally heart-breaking man. Oliver Chris is nearly as good as William and uncannily suggests the original. Lydia Wilson as Kate and Adam James as Mr. Evans, the Prime Minister, are also excellent, but the whole cast is terrific. While over-determined plot mechanics take over the second act, the action is always interesting and the skillful, precise playing of the excellent cast never lets things spill over into sloppiness or camp. In a climactic scene near the end, Camilla turns a scornful eye on Will and Kate: “It’s the King and Queen. Of column inches!” But the jibe rolls off them. They are modern monarchs utterly comfortable with their celebrity, which makes them ideal for our times. Will says to Charles of the monarchy, “It’s a job. You did it badly.” And it’s to the full credit of this production that we can see he is right while wishing he was wrong.
“Compared to ‘The Audience’, it comes up short. Compared to the highly acclaimed ‘Wolf Hall’, it looks absolutely brilliant.”
By Belle McIntyre
I was looking forward to seeing this play with positive expectations so I was predisposed in its favor. That may disqualify my objectivity. The premise is bold and relevant and intriguing to contemplate. How ballsy can you get to write a play set in the near future about people who are very much alive and totally familiar in the present?
To give the British royal family a Shakespearean treatment certainly seems appropriate. The use of blank verse is wonderful. The incidental music composed by Jocelyn Pook is hauntingly beautiful.
The casting is dead on. Timothy Piggot-Smith totally nails his portrayal of Charles as a king-in-waiting. A purgatory of waiting. That he might really believe that once he is actually king he can act like someone who has absolute power is unlikely. But assuming that he did, it would raise some interesting problems. Charles’s depiction as a principled man of conviction is plausible. The relevance of the monarchy is an endlessly fascinating subject.
With such a colorful cast of characters, all very well-acted, and a tale full of intrigue, manipulation, betrayal and warring loyalties, it should have been more compelling and engaging as theatre. The explanatory sections are too long and too prosaic.
When it breaks into blank verse, it soars. Compared to “The Audience”, it comes up short. However, compared to the highly acclaimed “Wolf Hall”, it looks absolutely brilliant.
“Who really cares about the rest of them when Camilla, we are told, used to answer the phone, ‘Rottweiler speaking’.”
For those many Americans who, like me, suffer from upper middle-brow inclinations and advanced Anglophilia, there is hope on the horizon. “King Charles III”, a historical drama with comic overtones taking place in the near but speculative future (the days after the death of Queen Elizabeth II), will thrill the “Wolf Hall”/“Downton Abbey’/Helen Mirren/Royal Family enthusiasts, among which I sit in the first row.
It is also literate, and wonderful theatre. And it stars Tim Piggot-Smith, who was a central figure in the great “The Jewel in the Crown”, perhaps the greatest BBC import of all time.
I go to any show about the royal family with a great burden of prejudice: I feel that everything should center around the true heroine of the pack. This is not the Queen, not Princess Diana, not Duchess Kate. It is, of course, Camilla, with whom I have been obsessed since I first heard of her. Who really cares about the rest of them when Camilla, we are told, used to answer the phone, “Rottweiler speaking.”
Camilla is someone who is obviously put together with a full retinue of hairdressers, makeup artists, dress designers and assorted other stylists—only to fall apart completely as soon as she goes into public view. Hairdos collapse, makeup runs, clothing shreds and drifts. She is a wonderful mess, who always gives pleasure to her fans. (I am possibly one of about five).
And that voice! On the rare occasions I have heard it, I have been ravished by its low, gurgling retro-aristo beauty–a relic of a past of hunting and country house parties. You know she would much prefer to be somewhere else, probably stomping through the countryside in her wellies—but not driving a truck, the stated preference of the dreaded Princess Anne.
In the new production on Broadway, the actress playing Camilla is least like what we feel we know of her, physically as well. Grey rather than bleached blonde, not as put together. . Although the play is not about Camilla, she is depicted with warmth and humor.
In fact, all of the royals depicted—Charles, William, Harry, Kate (none of the dreary minor ones, thank God)—are shown as flawed but rather nice human beings. Only Diana, in spectral appearances, seems, appropriately, out of this world. The playwright begins with the images of these people we think we know so well, and adds skeins of humanity to the caricatures.
Should I mention that it is written in blank verse—iambic pentameter—which mimics Shakespearean locution? And that it is so much more enjoyable than the Bard. You actually understand what they are talking about all the time, instead of trying to grasp at what often seems a familiar but foreign language. The flowing speeches and conversations are interspersed with things like “Wendy’s” and “Las Vegas”. There are elements of “Lear” and “Hamlet” (that ghost) and many other things which an aficionado of WS (which I, as you might guess, am not) would be able to grasp with ease.
The play deals with a parliamentary crisis which the not-yet-crowned King Charles stirs up. Prince William, with the strong-willed Kate behind him, decides to take things into his own hands. It all seems credible and reasonable.
A subplot regarding Harry and a young radical woman goes slightly astray but we love it anyway. Harry is played as a somewhat lost soul, searching for his place. He seems almost clueless when his possible parentage is brought up. The actor is sweet and sexy, though not as attractive as the real Harry.
The night I saw the play, the audience lapped it up like tea and scones. The theatergoers were dressed nicely, kept their shoes on, listened without texting, and stood to applaud.
Let’s hope there will always be an England, for the sake of us Americans.