Who knew Shakespeare was still writing plays? He is currently using the pseudonym Mike Bartlett. Either that or Mike Bartlett is a reincarnation of Shakespeare. I jest, but yet how else would he be able to create a modern history play that is so perfectly Shakespearean? Bartlett’s King Charles III is a wonderful piece of theater that bring Shakespearean language, historicity, and archetypes to the world of modern politics. Cardinal’s modern, clean production of the play just adds to the play’s power and impact.
King Charles III is a fictional history of the English Royal Family that begins with the announcement that Queen Elizabeth II has just died. Like the funeral scene at the beginning of Shakespeare’s King Henry VI, the family, ministers, lords, and ladies gather to honor a well-loved monarch. The play constantly remembers Queen Elizabeth II as a strong leader who helped her country survive some very turbulent times.
As Charles prepares for his coronation, he and those around him fear that he will not live up to the Queen’s legacy. In order to find his voice as ruler, Charles chooses to fight a bill that will outlaw some of the paparazzi’s slimier tactics because it would limit the freedom of the press. No one expects this because (in the world of the play) the monarch is expected to verify each law passed with a signature but not veto or refuse to sign. Charles’s refusal leads to a whole mess of political and social problems. The House of Lords and Commons turn against Charles for subverting their power, the people start rioting in the street because their democratic rights are in jeopardy, and Charles’s own family question his judgement.
The Prime Minister, Jack Reiss (adviser to the crown), and Kate Middleton work together to convince Prince William to intervene. At first, this means convincing Charles to sign the law, but as Charles continues to refuse, they want William to take the crown from Charles. William, with the help of the politicians, his wife, and his brother, strong arms Charles into giving up his crown if he wants to continue being a father and grandfather. There is no choice for Charles, and he heartbreakingly signs, saying that he could never be alone.
With King Charles III, Cardinal has once again tapped into my particular kind of theater nerdery. I love Shakespeare’s history plays on a personal and intellectual level. King Charles III included many of the truly iconic scenes from Shakespeare’s histories: the burial of King Henry V, the abdication of King Richard II, the haunting scene in Richard III, etc. The language was wonderfully Shakespearean. The royals and politicians generally spoke in an elevated, poetic form, while Jess, love interest of Prince Harry, and other common folk used an everyday prose. Each scene ended with a rhyming couplet, which made me happy each and every time.
There are those that may find issue with the play because of its loose interpretation of the reality it fictionalizes. Some do not like that Kate Middleton plays the conniving, power-hungry female archetype. Some get caught up in the specifics of “how the British government really works.” But to me, this is all part of Shakespearean historicity. Shakespeare was not overly concerned with historical accuracy. In fact, he warped history to such an extreme that it was almost as twisted as Richard III’s back. He wasn’t trying to create a historical documentary; instead, he was trying to create a story that would help his audience understand their relationship to their own history.
Bartlett’s history does the same. He puts us in a world that is familiar to us (more familiar for Brits and Anglophiles, but still one most people recognize). He asks us to watch and examine the way the world works and the ways in which it unravels. He asks us to find the problem that plagues this society (our society) and find possible solutions.
As I watched, I saw a group of characters stuck in a system that they disliked, but that they were impotent to change. Charles sees the hollowness of his crown, tries to take back some of that power, but he is vilified for it. William successfully steals the crown from his father, but in doing so he reinforces the monarch’s inability to affect true political change. Kate tries to gain power for womanhood by urging her husband to gain power, but she is still subject to his title and not her own power. Prince Harry tries to free himself from the confines of his family and his duty, but William’s ascension to the throne sucks him back in. Jess the spitfire anti-monarch republican is diverted from her political advocacy by her undeniable fascination with the royals. Even the law of the land seems impotent to create change. The politicians fought Charles to pass the bill that would stop the papers from using certain questionable tactics, but in the end that bill was ineffectual in keeping Jess’s private affairs out of the tabloids. All the characters seem to be stuck in a system they cannot control no matter which class they come from.
Cardinal’s production highlighted these themes (and many others) through its clean, modern staging. Besides a table and two benches that could be moved and stacked on top of one another, the stage was rather bare. This put the play’s emphasis on the characters and their words. With little else to focus on, the acting had to be spot on, and it was! Clare Cooney made a fabulously devious Kate Middleton, which would seem so hard because of Kate’s sweet and refined public persona. She did a fantastic job of easily slipping from the fancy poetry of the royals to courser prose when talking to Jess about their shared hometown. Speaking of Jess, Erica Bittner was great! It’s not easy for American actors to accomplish a cockney accent that doesn’t come off as farcical, but Erica did a fabulous job. All the actors simulated the various British accents well. As for the king himself, Charles Stransky created a character that was highly sympathetic and human. You could feel the king’s self-doubt when considering his ability to rule and his utter heartbreak at the thought of losing his family and the reality of losing his crown. He truly was a tragic Shakespearean figure.
I highly recommend Cardinal’s production of King Charles III. I do think you have to go into it realizing you will not see “reality” but an image of reality that only a mind like Shakespeare, I mean Bartlett, can create. Once you allow yourself get away from realism, the play has so many riches to offer.