Charles who? Although several notches down from America’s fixation on Princess Diana, our infatuation with the British royal couple, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and his lovely Duchess, fondly known as Kate, has shoved Charles Philip Arthur George, the Prince of Wales and heir apparent, into the shadows. British playwright Mike Bartlett aims to change that with his fascinating “future history” play, “King Charles III,” which finds the beloved queen dead and Britain’s new king — in a spellbinding performance by the amazing Tim Pigott-Smith — awaiting his coronation.
Charles (or should we just call him Hamlet and be done with it?) isn’t exactly champing at the bit for the power so long denied him. “I am better thoughtful prince than king,” he admits, in one of Bartlett’s eloquent turns of phrase, in a play ambitiously written entirely in blank verse.
Appearing before us in the full regalia (painstakingly rendered by costumer Tom Scutt) of prince of the realm, the introspective monarch might not be inclined by nature to embrace his birthright, but he fully accepts his duty. “The queen is dead. Long live the king — that’s me,” he says. “Now I’ll rise to how things have to be.”
According to the constitution, the rightful heir of Queen Elizabeth II won’t officially be recognized as king until his coronation — a fact of which William (Oliver Chris) and especially Kate (Lydia Wilson), Lord and Lady Macbeth in this Shakespearean-styled drama, are keenly aware. But unlike the “waiting generation” creeping up on him, Charles is no political animal, and he welcomes this three-month period of limbo as his time to mourn his mother and to reflect on the kind of king he wants to be.
Surprising himself as much as the Prime Minister (Adam James), Charles refuses to go along with the original plan to signify the unity of crown and state by greeting his subjects in the company of the PM. “I feel instead I should remain aloft from politics and walk with royals alone,” he says.
Having stood his ground on that sensitive matter, Charles is emboldened to reject Parliament’s first order of political business for him, to sign off on a new law to curtail freedom of speech — specifically, to curb the independent voice of the press. “The regulation of the press, we feel, is overdue,” the PM stresses to Charles. But the principled monarch refuses to put his name to this fundamental breach of freedom — a heroic and ironic position, considering how badly the press has treated the real Prince of Wales.
Director Rupert Goold’s ingeniously abstract staging calls upon the players in this Almeida Theater production to amplify — even to the point of parody — the correlation of the real-life characters they play to the Shakespearean models they’re based on. Prince Harry (Richard Goulding), cavorting with his Falstaffian friends, embodies the very soul and image of Henry IV. Will and Kate effortlessly transform themselves into the Macbeths. And all the politicians who betray Charles represent all the court villains who brought down the ill-fated kings in the history plays. There’s even a tragic parental ghost and some wicked witches to dispense bad advice.
But this is no playful pastiche. From the moment the play opens, on a spine-tingling funeral processional for the late queen, it’s clear that grave issues are involved. Will Scotland defect? And what does that leave of the once-mighty British empire? Will the politicians eviscerate a weak king? And what does that bode for the monarchy? The suspense is killing.
The play is dead serious. The direction is pitiless. And the supporting cast is superb. But Pigott-Smith is phenomenal, not only capturing the guarded manner and haunted look of the Prince of Wales, but portraying a sense of human goodness and character nobility that can either elevate a monarch or damn him to oblivion.