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New York City Theater

"King Charles III"
Music Box Theater

It starts with a solemn procession of mourners with candles while a bell tolls and a chant, “Requiem Aeternam,” is heard. The Queen (Elizabeth) is dead. Long live the King (Charles). It ends with a coronation, also ceremonial. In between, not the trappings of monarchy, but the entrapment of figures caught between idealism and pragmatism.

Mashing up several Shakespearean plays, “King Charles III,” the exciting new drama by Mike Bartlett, creates a “future history play” that rivals the Bard’s take on the past. Here are iambic parallels to “Richard II,” “Henry IV,” “Macbeth,” “Hamlet” and “King Lear” rolled up in a conundrum of what might or even could happen if Prince Charles becomes king when his mum, Queen Elizabeth, dies. Far from dry history, this rich, caparisoned and amusing work is also a mystery play, a dysfunctional family play, the journey of a man discovering who he is and a lesson in the vagaries of political maneuvering. Especially in the second act, the palace is so alive, the characters so fully fleshed, that one feels like an unwelcome eavesdropper on the secrets behind the throne.

Despite centuries of a stable constitutional monarchy, all is not smooth at Buckingham Palace. (What is that armored tank doing in the courtyard?)  Intrigues, betrayals and reversals of fortune plague the House of Windsor in unexpected ways. Charles is not an acquiescent monarch: when his prime minister asks him to sign a new law restricting the freedom of the press, Charles (“born and raised to rule”) objects, sparking a constitutional crisis and talk of civil war.

Since this is not the way it’s supposed to be – the monarch may advise but not much more – the question becomes who will win? Throw in several scheming relatives, specifically Prince William and his wife, Kate Middleton, plus “wild, clownish” Prince Harry, protective Camilla and the ghost of Princess Diana, and you have enough plots to occupy conspiracy buffs for years.

Though written in heightened poetic language, the work is not at all arcane. Rather, this “newly-minted” king who, he says, has “spent my life ling’ring for the throne,” who longs to be great and deplores becoming “a pretty plastic picture with no meaning,” is all too human. Charles is a man who, like Thomas More, follows his conscience, fearing “the awful shame of failure.”

Tom Scott’s dramatic unit set, with its tapestry of decaying pictures of the populace, allows flowing movement and a sense that comings and goings are both formal and spontaneous. It’s all quite disorienting, a setting of dark recesses where you never know who’s about to pop out next to spread dissension.

Wonderfully directed by Rupert Goold with an eye towards both pageantry and intimacy, the actors play a game of who am I really? Tim Piggott-Smith, fondly remembered for TV’s “Jewel in the Crown,” is an intensely private Charles who knows his own thoughts will conflict with those of his ministers. Seeking balance, he wishes to create a “just society.” Frustrated, angry, loving, confused, Piggott-Smith’s Charles dominates the stage as the monarch would Britain herself.

The British cast is exemplary, from Lydia Wilson’s sly Kate to Oliver Chris’ ambiguous William, Adam James’ confident prime minister, Richard Goulding’s rebellious Harry and all. Jocelyn Pook’s original music is played live, fitting for a fiery evening where seemingly inert figures blaze with life.

--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 5, 2015

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