by: Michael Bracken
The Queen is dead. Long live the King.
And there you have a bare bones synopsis of Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, set in the nearish future and playing at the Music Box Theater. The play is an imagining of the passing of the current British monarch, Elizabeth II, who, at the drama’s start, has just expired.
Her son Charles however, is very much alive, played with extraordinary breadth by Tim Pigott-Smith. The prince turned king displays initial trepidation that soon gives way to a potent admixture of pride, bluster, and deep devotion to duty. He questions the centuries-old custom of the sovereign’s functioning as a rubber stamp for bills passed by Parliament, and the law, it seems, is on his side. No matter. Tradition does not go down without a fight. The country is torn in two.
His family experiences a similar but not quite parallel upheaval. His wife Camilla (Margot Leicester) is concerned about his health. Son Harry (Richard Goulding) has found a new girlfriend even more rebellious than he. Older son William (Oliver Chris) starts whispering behind his father’s back. And William’s wife, Kate (Lydia Wilson), puts everything into motion without ever showing so much as a flick of a finger.
And then there’s Charles, adrift at sea without even knowing it. He sees his opposition from his prime minister, Mr. Stevens (Anthony Calf) – he’d have to be blind not to. But his naiveté prevents his understanding that Mr. Evans (Adam James), the unctuous leader of the opposition party, has an agenda of his own as well. And by the time he figures out where William and Kate sit, it’s simply too late.
Charles is blinded, in large part, because of his firm desire to do the right thing and accompanying belief that he knows what that is. The bill that starts his revolt is one he sees as stifling freedom of the press. His fight is principled, not spurious. He simply cannot support what he finds abhorrent.
The scent of Shakespeare – in modern dress to be sure – pervades Bartlett’s intelligent opus, written in blank verse, no less. Lear particularly comes to mind, an elderly monarch whose self-delusion leads inexorably to self-destruction. But Lear is more self-absorbed; less truly if perhaps mistakenly righteous.
Pigott-Smith is magnificent as he charts Charles’s downward spiral. And he gets plenty of support from a superb cast, who largely resemble the royal personages they play. Goulding is a free-wheeling Harry, smitten and tamed by the far more anarchic Jess (Tafline Steen). Chris is all stiff upper lip as William.
Yet it’s Wilson’s Kate, devoid of apparent guile, who subtly runs the show. Without any overt sign of control, we know she is the force behind William, pushing him to push his father over the edge. The message is conveyed subtly and concisely.
Director Rupert Goold, with help from Scenic Designer Tom Scutt, keeps King Charles III simple: the stage is almost bare, exchanges between characters direct and modulated.
Bartlett’s script is likewise devoid of fat. For all its referential ties to the bard of Avon, it never seems pretentious or overblown. And the plot flows smoothly to its unavoidable conclusion.
Pigott-Smith’s powerful performance is so rich it’s mesmerizing. A dark rainbow of ultimately desperate hues, he brings shaded nuance to a drama beautifully written and directed.
Through January 31 at The Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th Street. http://www.kingcharlesiiibroadway.com/. 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission.
Photos: Joan Marcus