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There really is no better term to describe Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III than ballsy. A neo-Shakespearean, not-altogether-impossible riff on what could happen when Prince Charles takes Britain’s throne, this gets the Royals where they live, literally and metaphorically.
The guts and glory are in the intelligent license Bartlett, the author of the brilliantly provocative Cock, takes in building the personalities of his key Royals: Charles, sons William and Harry, and William’s wife, Kate. We know so little of these supremely-protected people, cosseted as they are in press releases. There is the occasional splatter in a tabloid headline, the suddenly visible text between official lines, but we can’t ever know what they really say behind closed doors. Bartlett isn’t about pale attempts at imitation; he simply imbues these people with his own speculative brand of their life and then he uses them to get at the bigger fish he wants to fry.
At the heart of the play lie fascinating ideas: What really is the relationship between the monarchy and Parliament in modern Britain? What does it mean to be a king in the twenty-first century? What happens to the psyche of a person who has known only the physical, social and psychological construct of a royal household? Using Prince Charles as his driver, Bartlett grapples with these questions vividly and realistically.
Even bolder, he delivers it all through an unapologetically Shakespearean lens. King Charles III () is written in prose and blank verse. Charles speaks his inner thoughts via monologue. Time and events are spun not to a clock, but to Bartlett’s own dramatic arc. In other hands it would be a toe-curling contrivance, but here it completely and utterly works, because Bartlett is without doubt a ruthless self-editor and no moment is overdone. With a deft touch, director David Muse never gilds this finely-honed lily. He just shines a light on its beauty.
Like a Shakespearean tale of kings, at the core is Charles’ journey to, in, and from power. There is the ascent, the test that brings on a crisis of purpose and identity, and finally resolution — happy for some, not so for others. It’s a gratifying structure (schadenfreude by any other name), but it is also our way in — a methodical sequence we can dissect and chew over as it happens and then again later upon reflection.
The key, of course, is the king, and Robert Joy cuts an interesting course. Quite simply, his Charles is not particularly likable. He may have a lifetime’s worth of manners, but Joy shows us a deep and abiding impatience and frustration in this highly strung man. Perhaps Charles has simply waited too long for his turn, or perhaps he is really something of a spoiled, if intellectual, brat. It works well to see these glimpses of imperiousness — they suggest much of what might happen to someone deprived of a normal life. Joy also gives strong charge to Charles’ inner thoughts in his monologues, suggesting the man’s optimism, his idealism and sometimes his capacity for utter self-delusion. The only caveat is Joy’s teeny tiny tendency to overplay at essential moments. The exaggerated twirl of an arm, the posture held a second too long — they just distract. Still, it’s hard not to forgive a bit of Shakespearean swagger.
Digging into a very sophisticated place is a remarkable Ian Merrill Peakes as Prime Minister Evans, the political leader stumped by a Royal wrench thrown into in the Parliamentary works. Quite simply, Peakes is leading man material, not just because he owns the stage with understated integrity and elegance, but because he lives so convincingly in his character. He engages from that deep, quiet place that allows every expression, every nuance to give vantage-point on this man’s essence. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s — as the Brits like to say — a bit of thinking woman’s crumpet.
Another standout is Christopher McLinden as Charles’ eldest son, William. Sensibly staying far from an impersonation (and perhaps not quite able to catch the Toffs’ accent), McLinden gives his young man a pleasing intensity, touched with a skein of first-child anxiety. William may or may not herald a new breed of Royal, but he shows us that — either way — he is teetering on a brink. Bringing some of the humor and edging slightly closer to parody is Jeanne Paulsen’s Camilla. But she doesn’t just look the part, she gets that a woman of this breeding and endurance is going to have a special kind of grit.
Also played for some amusement, and somewhat quirkily, is Harry Smith’s Prince Harry, William’s younger brother. A drive-by reference to Prince Hal and his foray into Falstaff’s world, this Harry also meets a commoner who shows him the joys of a regular life. Delivering his Bartlett in a kind of loud, ironic deadpan, you’ll either love it or hate it, but there’s no denying it’s memorable. As Kate, Allison Jean White delivers cut-crystal precision and just the right amount of edge. As Harry’s girlfriend Jessica, Michelle Beck hasn’t got the accent, but she keeps her woman believably working class without turning her into a Big Brother contestant. In smaller roles, Dan Hiatt is superbly understated as Royal aide James Reiss, while Rafael Jordan gets it pitch-perfect with his Kebab-seller, and Tim Getman’s Speaker of the House is right on the money.
Bartlett’s voice may harken to the Bard, but the way he thinks is rare and original. This is one audience with a king you won’t want to miss.
King Charles III has been extended to March 18 at the Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org.
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