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King Charles III

" The queen is dead, long live the King. That's me."
— King Charles III, somewhat shocked to find himself in the job he's been waiting to take on all his life — but not too shocked to assert himself as "aloft from politics" immediately after his mother's burial by walking out to meet the public without his prime minister; and setting in motion an exploration this question: "what is power held if never used?"
King Charles III
Tim Pigott-Smith as King Charles III (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Last week a Curtainup reader sent me an e-mail asking if I thought American audiences would really relate to a play about the British royalty with its plot focused on a conflict between king and Parliament. She added, "Isn't it enough to watch what's going on in our own dysfunctional governing bodies?"

Now that I've been lucky enough to see Mike Bartlett's Olivier award winning King Charles III, I can assure all my readers that it's an absorbing, potent drama for anyone — American or British — who appreciates original playwriting, superb acting and exciting staging. If we featured star rating, I would agree with our London critic Lizzie Loveridge that this would indeed call for the most possible stars. (A link to Lizzie's review below).

Sure, it's disturbing to see our elected officials' inability to govern effectively. Watching their dysfunction in televised events like the recent Republican debates, should send everyone out to vote and thus insure effective leadership. However, this type of coverage is reality TV and not Class A theater as King Charles III is.

While Shakespeare is the world's established dramatist-in-chief when it comes to potent history dramas, he drew on established works like Holinshed's Chronicles to build historical figures into memorable characters. But Mike Bartlett has cleverly used the existing royal family for his own revamped approach to their well-publicized and documented behind-the-throne stories by building his plot around an event that still hasn't happened: the death of the Queen who's been on the throne since 1952 and the ascent to that throne of Prince Charles.

With that inevitable but now still in the future event established, Bartlett gave his imagination free rein to create his own Shakespearean drama of personal and political intrigue. Thus he has Charles, after a life time of being next-in-line to his mum, decide to follow his conscience and break with the long established custom of the monarch rubber stamping Parliament's bills, whether he likes them or not. Sort of a "whatever Parliament wants Parliament gets" variation of the famous song from Damn Yankees.

The about to be passed bill that triggers the conflict at the heart of the play is to restrict the press. It's a response to the abuses by Rupert Murdoch's tabloid journalists. While the Windsors have certainly suffered from headline hungry journalistic excesses, Charles sees such a bill's fallout on all freedom of expression. Indeed, if a law like that were in effect, Mr. Bartlett might have thought twice about using the royal family as his dramatic personae.

Fortunately, freedom of the press prevails. And we therefore do get to spend two and a half hours with a tired and somewhat Mad-King-George kind of King Charles; also his family and the political operatives who are as determined to stop him from breaking with four hundred plus years of tradition in order to take advantage of this late in life chance to be a great and good king. While this Charles is in the mold of Shakespeare's tragic kings, his instantly crisis ridden rein is Lear-like of his own doing. (He expains his stubborn refusal to sign the press restraining bill by saying that the pen he's been given to sign it dries up in his hand and that if he did sign he would be an empty vessel, waiting for"Instruction, soulless and uncorporate"). However, even this contemplative king has his humorous moments. There's his sudden realization that any shouts of "long live the King" now mean "that's me!" There's also a scene in which we see him launching his first weekly meeting with his prime minister by lifting the tea pot and asking "Shall I be mother?" (Shades of last year's The Audience which made a whole meal of that custom of manarch and PM conversations.)

Though King Charles III can be viewed as a satire it's not one with especially sharp elbows. No one comes off too badly. Even William's wife Kate, who's given some of the conniving traits of Shakespearian women, won't end up maddened with guilt. But while nobody kills or gets killed as is typical in the Bard's historic power plays, there's no shortage of intrigues, characters who clearly evoke Shakespeare's princes and kings (most obviously, Richard Goulding's Harry, here very reminiscent of young Prince Hal in Henry V). There's even a ghost, this one not one of the trio in Macbeth but Charles' first wife Diana (one of Sally Scott's several small roles.)

The entire cast fits that 5-star rating Lizzie Loveridge and I mentioned. Whether in key or smaller multiple roles, the actors'. delivery isn't just in the usually admirable Britspeak but in Bartlett's wonderfully ear pleasing blank verse that accommodates colloquialisms and plenty of Bardic soliloquies. Director Rupert Goold keeps the high drama of the climactic betrayals that ultimately surface from being predictable and overly melodramatic.

According to Mr. Bartlett the title character may not keep a firm a hold on his long-awaited crown, but Tim Pigott-Smith who plays him is very much the deserved star of this enterprise. Despite a distinguished stage career, American theater goers know him primarily as the unforgettable police superintendent in the British Raj mini-series, The Jewel in the Crown (still available for hours of riveting entertainment on Netflix). Piggot-Smith's elderly King Charles III is the jewel in the crown of this actor's career— and this production's pleasures

With the creative team and director as well as the original cast on board, the play has made a smooth landing in a perfect Broadway home — the big enough but not too big Music Box. Tom Scutt has transformed the stage into a grand brick-walled space. A central platform handily accommodates scenes inside and outside Buckingham Palace with minimal props. It also creates a sense of connection between the Windsors and the occupants of Elsinore and Cawdor castles. Jocelyn Pook's musical interludes are enriched by two musicians perched in one of the loges and Paul Arditti's sound design. Good use is also made of the aisles.

King Charles III is a long play, but you won't be checking your watch. Long Live this King!

To read Lizzie Loveridge's review in London click here .

King Charles III by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Rupert Goold Cast: Tim Pigott-Smith (King Charles III), 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), Sally Scott (Sarah//Ghost/TV producer),Tafline Steen (Jess), Tom Robertson (Couttsey/Speaker of House of Commons/Sir Michael), Lydia Wilson (Kate); Peter Bradbury (Protester), Lucas Hall (Protester/Attendant), Rachel Spencer Hewitt (Protester/Attendant), Gordana Rashovich (Protester), Harry Smith (Protester).
Scenic and Costume Design by Tom Scutt
Composer: Jocelyn Pook

Sound: Paul Arditti
Lighting: Jon Clark
Musicians: Maria Jeffers, Christa Robinson
Stage Manager: Barclay Stiff
Running time: Two hours 40 minutes, including 1 intermission
Music Box Theatre 239 West 45th Street
From 10/10/15; opening 11/01/15; 1/31/16
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at October 29th press preview
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