NEW YORK – In a theater ruled by small ideas, Mike Bartlett’s “King Charles III” is a drama of heroic proportions and high theatrical excitement. It is at the Music Box Theater on West 45th Street. Mr. Bartlett’s play is a fantasy of the British royal family in the near future when Queen Elizabeth II has died and Prince Charles has become king.
The play begins at the queen’s funeral procession to the sound of Jocelyn Pook’s requiem music as the royal family lines up, holding flickering candles, and led by the new King Charles III, magnificently acted by Tim Pigott-Smith. Beside him is a troupe of excellent actors playing the royals: his wife Camilla (Margot Leicester), Duchess of Cornwall; Prince William (Oliver Cris) and his wife Princess Kate (Lydia Wilson), the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge; and William’s ginger-headed younger brother Prince “Harry” (Richard Goulding), Prince Henry of Wales.
Mr. Bartlett draws Charles in sharp detail, as a puzzled, frightened man in his late 60’s. His life has been built around his aging mum and dad, and mostly lingering around Buckingham Palace waiting for the throne, although he felt the queen would never pass. Now as the sole ruler, he suddenly feels so terribly alone. He thinks he was probably a better prince than king. Even Camilla can’t console him.
Playwright Bartlett decided to write “King Charles III” as a Shakespearean chronicle. It is written in iambic pentameter with echoes of the Bard’s historical plays “Henry IV,” “Richard II” and the tragedies of “Hamlet,” “Macbeth” and “King Lear.” You can see characters from these plays in Harry’s Falstaffian partying days, like Prince Hal in “Henry IV,” and the ghost of Diana (Sally Scott) could be Banquo from “Macbeth.” And the end of the play, Mr. Pigott-Smith takes on a Lear-like look and tenor.
King Charles’s problems begin shortly after his mother’s funeral and several weeks before his official coronation. He keeps saying that he feels trapped being a king. All the meetings and questioning and fussing seem like a bother. He says, “I like my meals prearranged and frozen.”
Then the prime minister (Adam James) arrives. He introduces a bill to restrict the freedom of the press. He says it has passed the house and will be soon British law. It just needs the royal assent, which his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, granted throughout her 70-year-reign even when she objected.
This turns out to be Charles’s crisis. Charles feels his principles are being compromised and that both the country and individuals will suffer if the independent voice of the press is silenced. He refuses to sign.
The prime minister mentions that the press has plagued Charles’s life and that, in its own way, the press was the cause of Diana’s death. He indicates that Charles should want to limit the pack-of-wolves reporters and News Corp. phone hackers.
When Charles, like King Lear, stands up against Parliament in a colossal show of defiance, he is putting himself on trial. Amidst the threat of a constitutional crisis, the country becomes divided; half supports the monarchy, the other half wants it dismissed forever. The role of the modern British royal family and its power over the government becomes a central question.
The wonder of “King Charles III” is that the playwright is neither contemptuous nor laudatory of the man, but rather detached and ironic. “King Charles” succeeds as memorable theatrically because of the tough tension Mr. Bartlett creates with great scenes of royal battles skillfully staged by director Rupert Goold.
King Charles is the shining point of Mr. Pigott-Smith’s career. He is probably best known to readers of a certain age as the Ronald Merrick of the 1984 television serial “The Jewel and the Crown.” The enormous psychological struggle of playing Charles must be an extraordinary acting feat because most the time, he is such an unhappy man. He could have been a king if he had only played by the rules. Or maybe he just didn’t want it.
After the curtain falls this fiercely contentious drama leaves the audience with a question: Will the British monarchy survive this century or the next?
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.