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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at Music Box Theatre


  Lydia Wilson and Tim Pigott-Smith/ Ph: Joan Marcus

For the living playwright working in English, William Shakespeare is a vexation. Whether you think his global stature oppressive or admire the works as antique phenomena with little bearing on today’s dramaturgical needs, the legacy must be dealt with. In the academy, they dissect him along ideological lines; high-concept, modern settings are de rigueur; and recently, Oregon Shakespeare Festival has commissioned “translations” of the 36 plays. Much less common is rigorous study and emulation, the path taken by Mike Bartlett in his audacious, madly engaging verse drama, King Charles III. Writing five acts mostly in iambic pentameter, Bartlett plugs directly into a tradition that uses scintillating metered poetry to connect the fortunes of a nation to the torments of a family.
Had this speculative tale of Prince Charles ascending to the throne after Elizabeth II’s death been executed in prose, it would have been merely a “state of the nation” drama with a bit of satirical cheek. Actors playing tabloid icons like Camilla, Kate and raffish Prince Harry elicit knowing chuckles on first entrance, but once they start spouting Bartlett’s meaty, incisive lines, you settle in a deep-listening groove. “For if my name is given through routine / And not because it represents my view,” reflects newly crowned King Charles III (Tim Pigott-Smith), “Then soon I’ll have no name, and nameless I / Have not myself, and having not myself, / Possess not mouth nor tongue nor brain.” Improbably, the twittish Prince of Wales approaches the introspective grandeur of Richard II, and we lean forward hungrily, gobbling up his cascading iambs.
What Charles refuses to sign in that scene is a new law strongly supported by Prime Minister Evans (Adam James) that would limit the freedom of the press to tap citizens’ personal data through hacking. Although Charles’ privacy has been violated in the past, he takes a principled stand against the bill. The ensuing political battle between king and Parliament – followed with filial anguish by Prince William (Oliver Chris) and opportunistic curiosity by Kate (Lydia Wilson) – threatens the monarchy itself. Will Charles surround Buckingham with armed soldiers? Will William usurp his father? It’s political soap opera with gorgeous language.
Still, Bartlett sets the bar so high, there’s room to quibble that some characters are underwritten and the obligatory ghost of Diana is more gothic camp than tragedy. The genius of Shakespeare lies in his ability to articulate multiple worldviews in one play, creating a vivid tapestry of clashing perspectives on kingship, statecraft and the divine right of kings versus their all-too-human weakness. Bartlett fully humanizes Charles, but the play often lacks a certain philosophical boldness. Antiroyal commoner Jess (Tafline Steen), who takes up with a besotted Prince Harry (Richard Goulding), is one of those missed opportunities. Used mostly in a rom-com subplot, Jess needs a speech making the case for abolishing royalty: something to make our hair stand on end. Likewise, I wish Bartlett had had the vision to write a spirited defense of the monarchy as an institution that makes us better humans. As with Shakespeare, you don’t have to agree with the speaker, you just have to feel the thrill of big ideas being expressed poetically. In that way, King Charles III’s stylistic achievement is great, but it falls short of greatness.
Bartlett’s otherwise bravura text also might have stalled if Rupert Goold’s staging weren’t so passionately acted and evocatively designed. Scouring his soul on a red-carpeted dais surrounded by a medieval stone wall, Pigott-Smith wrings every drop of pathos and pride from his speeches, as a monarch unthroned by high ideals. Galvanizing and astonishing, King Charles III doesn’t just send you back to Shakespeare’s histories; it makes you want to write one.


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