The Conscience of the King

This year, Elizabeth II became the longest-reigning monarch in British history, but on Broadway, her eldest son has already taken the crown in Mike Bartlett’s “future history play” King Charles III.  “I am better thoughtful prince than king,” Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith) soliloquizes after telling Camilla (Margot Leicester), “The love, with us, it’s all my life, but never can replace parental word, a mother’s hand to hold.”  But this Hamlet longing for his Gertrude quickly turns a shade Claudius.  After his first audience with the Prime Minister (Adam James) and the Leader of the Opposition (Anthony Calf), he decides to withhold his signature from a privacy bill that would limit the freedom of the press.  The move snowballs, and while Charles pushes to restore political power to the monarchy, Harry (Richard Goulding) falls in love with the anti-establishment Jess (Tafline Steen) and Kate (Lydia Wilson) plays Lady Macbeth to a reluctant but not intractable William (Oliver Chris).

Perhaps the most astounding thing about Mr. Bartlett’s play is that he has taken these anachronistic buffoons—whose celebrity is not even substantiated by a fatuous YouTube video or mindless singing career—and transformed them into Shakespearean heavyweights.  Backed by Jocelyn Pook’s emotional, minimalist score (think Michael Nyman in The Piano), Mr. Bartlett elevates these people from larger-than-life tabloid headlines to larger-than-life historical forces.  By the time Kate tells William, “Nothing comes of nothing said” (recalling Lear’s “Nothing will come of nothing”), the “ancient costumes,” the “lines to learn,” and the “slice of theater” have regained their former gravity.

The actors are perfectly cast, so like their real-world counterparts it is as if Madame Tussaud’s has come alive.  Mr. Pigott-Smith handles the transition from neurotic mama’s boy to wannabe despot quite fluidly, while Mr. Goulding manages to inject some depth into a man-child largely known to this reviewer for a political acumen that sees no potential public relations nightmares in a Nazi party costume.  And Mr. Bartlett’s script deftly handles the verse, which could so easily sound awkward in this modern context. (In fact, he frequently plays with this high/low tension, with Harry frequently providing prosaic interruptions to the carefully-wrought dialogue.  At one point, the ebullient rebel son says, in his poshest public school accent, “We went to Burger King … I had a Whopper.”)

Writing British monarchical drama in the shadow of Shakespeare must be intimidating, but Mr. Bartlett is simultaneously conscious of, indebted to, and free from this theatrical ancestor.  They may never reach the menacing heights of a Richard III or the devastating intergenerational lows of a Henrys the IV and V, but his characters (and his script) do capture the spirit of the times.  This is not quite the winter of our discontent, but instead the autumn of our deflation.

King Charles III runs through January 31st at the Music Box Theatre.  239 West 45th Street  New York, NY.  2 hours 30 minutes.  One intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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