Obviously I was going to buy a ticket for King Charles III. London’s 2015 Best Play winner? About the Royals? IN BLANK VERSE? Yes please!
A show with stature! Playwright Mike Bartlett has written “a future history play” about what could happen after the death of Queen Elizabeth. Prince Charles is now King Charles, and the plot hinges on his refusal to sign a law that has already been approved by parliament. It’s a ceremonial duty of the monarch, and no king or queen has refused to sign anything for centuries. As you might guess, pandemonium ensues when Charles stands his ground.
Sounds like a pretty exciting drama, right? And the production is wonderful and — as expected — full of stature. In my book, a play with stature should have:
- choral singing in latin (with a live cellist and oboeist, if at all possible)
- a large and impressive cast
- beautiful scenic design
- plenty of intellect and intrigue
- Shakespearian characters
- incredible textual depth
Check, check, check, check, check, check. Let me expand upon a few of those checklist items. First of all, the language. Mr. Bartlett has written something ambitious on a scale I haven’t seen in years. As I’ve already said, it’s in blank verse, so the characters sound modern and timeless all at once. You’ll occasionally hear that backward phrasing that we all recognize from exposure to Shakespeare. I found its use of blank verse absolutely brilliant, an incredibly smart way of constructing a contemporary work that feels like one of Shakespeare’s history plays. It really does make the show feel epic.
And those characters. Tim Pigott-Smith’s Charles feels like a Shakespearian figure, a man of conscience trapped between his morals, his duty, and his unbelievably popular son William. Harry, meanwhile, is equally trapped, though for him it’s more of an I-don’t-fit-in-with-the-Royals malaise. Harry’s plotline is a little more predictable than Charles’s: he falls in love with a penniless art student who opposes the monarchy altogether. Seems like fodder for a romantic comedy, right? Nevertheless, both Mr. Pigott-Smith and Richard Goulding as Harry are phenomenal, forming the emotional center of the show. (Mr. Goulding also reminded me of a guy I used to date, which probably won him extra points to be honest.)
Anyway, as you may have noticed, I keep referring to King Charles III as “a show with stature” and “a wonderful production.” That’s because I’m avoiding the truth. I found it boring. I loved seeing Kate Middleton as a kind of Lady MacBeth; I loved the mixture of modern language and old phrasing; I loved the concept of a play about Charles III. But I simply didn’t love the end result.
Now, why not? Perhaps it’s that I found the play to have a thrilling premise, but for some reason I failed to really buy into what happened after. I was constantly either thinking “this is so farfetched” or “it’s so ridiculous that the Brits even have a monarchy at all” Or I’d think: “Boy, am I glad this monarchy stuff isn’t my problem.” (Now what Anglophile in her right mind would think THAT?)
There’s also the fact that despite all its brilliance in many areas, King Charles III has quite a few plot holes. I don’t want to get too spoilery, so let me just say that the last twist felt a little unwarranted. And Harry’s reaction to that twist also seemed out of step with everything the character had been up to that point.
Or perhaps it’s even a little simpler than that: King Charles III is fascinating in premise, boring in execution. Beautiful language, problematic plot structure. I’m not someone opposed to a nice, long, meaty play, but I imagine this one would really pack a suckerpunch if it had a more intense 90 minute piece. On the other hand — and I always have an other hand, don’t I? — I was certainly exhausted when I saw the show. A two and a half hour history play was probably too ambitious for a Cardinals fan in mourning. I’ll do better next time. Or the play will. Or the Cardinals will.
My Grade: B-
Ticket price: $45
Worth it: Not really
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes
Standing Ovation Watch: 95% yes