By Martin Morse Wooster: Those of us who read Gregory Benford’s 1980 novel Timescape will recall that he foresaw a world in 1998 that largely didn’t happen. Oxygen-sucking algae did not nearly destroy the Atlantic. The British didn’t randomly die from bangers made with dubious meat. Prince Charles did not become king.
As an American, I don’t get a vote on whether or not the monarchy is a good idea. But I like sf, and I watch more monarchy shows on public television than is probably good for me. So when I saw that the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington was showing King Charles III, a play by Mike Bartlett that premiered in London in 2014, I knew I had to see it. I was very glad that I did.
I was somewhat surprised a couple of days before I went to get an email in my box from Shakespeare Theatre director Michael Kahn about the play. He quoted David Muse, the head of the Studio Theatre here and the play’s director. He praised Bartlett for writing plays that dealt with climate change, Edward Snowden, and “the fluidity of sexuality.” But in this paragraph Muse nailed why King Charles III is quite good:
“This is not a play that takes sides or tires to satirize the quaintness of the monarchy of the foibles of the royal family. Far from being a fool, Charles is a protagonist with complexity that Bartlett invests with tragic stature.”
Having been warned about Bartlett’s other plays, I can attest the following things do not happen in King Charles III:
King Charles does not punch out any polar bears fleeing melting icebergs.
The king does not get busted for downloading data dumps to Wikileaks.
Charles does not tell tourists, “I’m the king, dagrabbit. Get off my royal lawn!”
The Shakespeare Theatre published in their program this interview originally done for the American Conservatory Theatre by Simon Hodgson. Bartlett explains in the interview how he tried to make his play like Shakespeare’s: it “has five acts” (although of course it really only had two). There are two plots, of which the minor story is comic. Above all, all the royals speak in iambic pentameter,
The premise is that in the near future (around 2022) Charles finally becomes king. But a prime minister proposes a bill imposing severe restrictions on the press. Charles refuses to give his assent to the bill. Will this decision doom the monarchy?
The comic subplot is very familiar to people who have seen Henry IV. There’s no Falstaff, but Prince Harry goes clubbing and falls in with dubious people. He plays with the paper crowns Burger King gives out and at one point consumes a late-night kebab on stage to soak up the booze.
Charles comes across as more like Richard II than any of Shakespeare’s other kings. There’s also a ghost, and if you think about the history of the Windsors you’ll know whose ghost it is.
As Muse notes, it would be very easy to portray Charles as yesterday’s man, a hangover from the past that a modern country doesn’t need. But this is a move Bartlett doesn’t make. Charles is portrayed as someone trying to do the right thing and make the monarchy a force in improving British life. As Bartlett portrays him, he is neither a ninny nor a fool but someone who is admirable in many ways.
As I’d expect from the Shakespeare Theatre, the cast, including Jeanne Paulsen as the Duchess of Cornwall, Christopher McLinden as Prince William, and Allison Jean White as the Duchess of Cambridge, were all quite good. Robert Joy looks nothing like the real Prince Charles, but portrays Charles with tragic grandeur.
Special thanks to the Shakespeare Theatre gift shop for introducing me to Walkers’ Nonsuch Toffee, a delicious treat made with healthful ingredients like sugar, whole milk, and butter, no doubt provided by contented cows. It enhanced my evening.