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Like a Shakespearean Hero, ‘King Charles III’ Is Ambitious to a Fault


“Long live the King — that’s me!” cries Prince Charles when he suddenly inherits the throne. Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III leaps from today’s tabloid-tinged realities into a cheeky fantasy of Britain’s political future. It kicks off with a supposition: The long-lived Elizabeth II dies (in reality the Queen just celebrated her 90th birthday), handing her son Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith) the crown after a lifetime of dutiful waiting. But even before his coronation, this stodgy aristo finds himself ensnarled in controversy. Clinging to outmoded perceptions, the new monarch has decided to use his lawful powers to refuse to rubber-stamp a proposed privacy law. (Ironically, Charles thinks the restrictions will endanger freedom of the press — even though paparazzi have nearly destroyed his family’s life in the past.)

“This is not what I want. This is what I must,” the King fatuously declares. Pigott-Smith plays him as a disoriented man trying to do right, rather than a shark consolidating authority. But the Crown’s not supposed to exert those powers; it’s meant to sign Parliament’s laws automatically, guaranteeing that Britain remains a democracy, not a territory ruled by decree. A crisis of legitimacy erupts. Parliament dissolves. Crowds riot. Charles’s sons, the aloof William (Oliver Chris) and rebellious Harry (Richard Goulding), must reason with their father, whose dangerous visions of power threaten either extinction for the House of Windsor or bedtime for democracy.

Bartlett’s zippy tale often captures our imagination, riffing on what we already know from supermarket headlines about Camilla (Margot Leicester) and Buckingham Palace’s handlers. It works best when focused on Machiavellian intricacies of character — more House of Cards than House of Lords. Unfortunately, this often clever drama has a flimsy dramaturgy and pretensions to Shakespearean scale. Subtitled “A Future History Play,” King Charles III sometimes shifts the dialogue to reference Shakespeare, an overkill tactic that proves grating. (“Nothing comes of nothing said.”) It would have been enough to convey the epic scope of this succession struggle through the play’s structure, which hews, smartly, to history-drama form: Reversals of personal fortune affect the entire nation. (A comic subplot equates Harry, the self-described “ginger joke,” with Prince Hal from Henry IV; both youths search for a way out of their palace hells through social adventure, acquiring honor along the way.)

Rupert Goold’s staging, which originated at London’s Almeida Theatre, falls back on some creaky machinery — think fog machines and faux–Philip Glass musical interludes — to convey epochal significance. It’s the kind of chattering-class play that reliably succeeds in London, raising issues that are interesting to think about for fifteen minutes but never challenging us with radical propositions. A brief allusion is made to the political specters that haunt Britannia today, but it’s framed in terms of budget cuts to the health service and BBC. All this while Scotland’s drive for independence has already frayed the ties that bind the United Kingdom and an approaching referendum on quitting the European Union may redefine this sceptered isle. Bartlett’s play suggests that unsettling change will come from the top but barely considers these prevailing winds. Fantasy or not, the U.K. may not exist in a short while, with or without a king to blame.

King Charles III
By Mike Bartlett
The Music Box Theatre
239 West 45th Street