We gave it an A
Genre: Play, Original; Starring: Tim Pigott-Smith, Oliver Chris, Richard Goulding, Lydia Wilson; Director: Rupert Goold; Author: Mike Bartlett; Opening Date: Nov. 1, 2015
Those unfamiliar with this anecdote will find it too goofy to believe: On a telephone call, which was hacked and recorded in 1989 and fed like candy to the world’s media shortly thereafter, Prince Charles told his then-mistress Camilla Parker-Bowles that he wanted to be reincarnated as her Tampax tampon. “My luck to be chucked down the lavatory,” he told her, “and go on and on forever swirling round the top, never going down.” That sentiment from Charles, rather brilliant in its metaphor, actually, does not appear in Mike Bartlett’s magnificent, ingenious, fearlessly comic King Charles III, but just as well might do so. Playing now through January 31 at the Music Box Theatre, the play imagines with spellbinding, unexpected intrigue the ascension to the throne of Great Britain’s most lugubrious elder prince.
Queen Elizabeth II, England’s current and longest reigning monarch, will turn 90 in April, but the play begins with her funeral dirge. The year is not given but we’re in the very near future, and the plot smoothly skates the line between referencing real people and events while inventing new ones. Many American audiences might not notice that the prime minister here, Mr. Evans (Adam James), is a fictional creation, albeit with the genetics of current PM David Cameron. Yet there’s no mistaking the queen’s grandsons, William (Oliver Chris) and Harry (Richard Goulding), and William’s wife Kate (Lydia Wilson), all of whom are near doppelgangers for their true life counterparts.
As Charles, Tim Pigott-Smith is not a dead ringer in physical appearance, but crucially captures that unique buffoon charm that any non-royalist who’s ever seen the prince interviewed will instantly detect. “The only truth: I am alone,” Charles laments in the first scene. “Except for me,” reminds Camilla (Margot Leicester), to which Charles sighs, “It’s not the same.” We in the audience laugh because he isn’t being callous. Just mildly oblivious. We know that Charles loves Camilla — always has, in fact, even before and during his marriage to Princess Diana. But what Bartlett and director Rupert Goold are focusing on here is Charles’ difficultly in expressing his feelings. When a person already prone to eccentricity (Charles has admitted that he talks to plants) has been suppressed under his mother’s mighty bejeweled hand for so long, what will he do when he’s finally free? Is it possible to experience one’s leaving of the proverbial nest at 70 years old?
The plot of King Charles III is so miraculously intricate that I’m reluctant to spoil any of its corkscrew twists or lavish thought experiments. The most basic outline is this: Following his mother’s death, Charles instantaneously refuses to sign a parliamentary bill which would strengthen the privacy rights of individuals. In the new king’s opinion, it would also limit the freedom of British’s notoriously sleazy media, and he’s willing to intervene in unprecedented ways to make sure that doesn’t happen. The irony of this is Barlett’s masterstroke — that a man whose life has been a bountiful feast for press (the aforementioned tampon anecdote is only one of dozens) would defend the media cannibals at the moment of their greatest hunger. But it underlines Charles’ sincere, nutty integrity. When the prime minister evokes the name of his ex-wife to persuade the king to consider the press’ bloodlust with more depth, he replies, “That’s bold. So soon in our relationship. To utilize Diana.”
But, in fact, in the play’s riskiest gamble, it’s Bartlett who utilizes Diana. The deceased princess makes two appearances as a phantom (played by Sally Scott), first haunting Charles in Buckingham Palace and later her eldest son William. Both scenes parrot from the ghost of Hamlet’s father and the three witches in Macbeth — as so much of the play reverberates beautifully with echoes of Shakespeare — and Diana tells both men that each will be “the greatest king England has ever known.” And just like “no man borne of woman,” her premonition comes true, even as it draws the royal family to the brink of civil war.
It’s another war, however, which is never mentioned in the play, but runs deep in Bartlett’s fascinating thesis. Queen Elizabeth was opposed to Britain’s involvement in the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a fact which then-prime minister Tony Blair ignored while cheerleading for George W. Bush. (Blair recently apologized.) The King Charles of this play stands on principle, even if it should cause instability within his family and country, partly as an misguided overreaction to his mother’s general apathy towards her purely ceremonial job. What good is great power if it comes with no responsibility? If the tax-payer-funded royal family is to remain a relevant force in Britain’s historical legacy, Charles argues, it needs to contribute to something other than magazine and newspaper covers. (The play’s one subplot which doesn’t quite click, incidentally, concerns a girlfriend of Harry’s who is smeared by the British papers; it reinforces points better made elsewhere in the text.)
The production itself — including a cold-to-the-touch set, evocative costumes by Tom Scutt, and a deliciously spooky musical score by Eyes Wide Shut composer Jocelyn Pook — perfectly matches the text’s subversive attitude. And flawlessly in synch with Bartlett’s confidence and light-footed perversity is the extraordinary Pigott-Smith, whose performance as Charles certainly makes him the front-runner for a Tony Award next year. The role is a blender puree of Shakespeare’s leading men and Pigott-Smith, with a remarkable degree of sensitivity and a merciful absence of snark, locates the bumblingly human element in Charles that makes him a sympathetic, Lear-like figure, especially in the play’s second act. Indeed, the real life prince should in some ways be flattered by the play’s ultimate verdict on him. Conforming to the status quo, according to Shakespeare’s template, is the worst virtue — and, to wit, Bartlett reserves his cynicism for the next generation of William, Kate and Harry, whose dubious parentage is even brought up.
Though it was certainly never intended as such, Bartlett’s text is also a boost to the recent argument (ignited by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) for presenting the Bard’s work in modern vernacular. King Charles III is written in the unrhymed poetry of Shakespearean blank verse. But the language courses with the vivid moxie of 21st century life. Charles, in a moment of great frustration, refers to his subject’s faces, “Of no emotion, botoxed in place.” In a dazzling soliloquy in the first act, he speaks about the hipness and efficiency of GPS on a car, while smilingly comparing himself to a trusty old tool: “When lost, and crisis strikes, we soon mistrust these modern ways, and reach for what we know: We seek the map.” We seek the map, too. Watching King Charles III is like looking at the topographical landscape of a familiar world, one which we faintly recognize despite not having yet seen. It is as fresh, as thrilling, and as awesome as an undiscovered country. A
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