Mike Bartlett's deliberately (and delightfully) Shakespearean King Charles III is a history play about things that haven't happened yet. It's also one of the more interesting and innovative scripts to make rounds in ages. It begins with somber candles and a sad eventuality — the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II who, in real life, is still very much alive but a relative short-timer.
In a twinkling, England has changed and everybody — Prince Charles, especially — wonders what it means to have a king in Buckingham Palace.
Things get tense right away when Charles is presented with a privacy bill that undermines press freedom and, in doing so, looms as a serious threat to English democracy. Law requiring the royal autograph has come to be regarded as ceremonial, and when the required signature is withheld, a crisis ensues that threatens to boil over into anarchy. And that's just the beginning. Charles knows history and the law, so when the politicians seek to neuter him, he raises the stakes in a big, big way.
Here is a play where politics is practiced by master craftsmen and rude brawlers alike, while the royals get on with a proper game of thrones. Prince Harry (Jared H. Graham) struggles to reconcile his disposition with birthright and responsibility, while media darlings William and Kate learn how to leverage their own authority as the reigning "King and Queen of column inches." Bartlett presents it all in Shakespearean verse, with special working-class dives into prose. It's tribute artistry fine and rare.
As directed by Dave Landis, Playhouse on the Square's Charles III is smart, but sharper than it is crisp — full of vigor and clever, history-winking design, but badly organized in spots that could and should make jaws hit the ground. As long as one thing is happening on stage at a time, the sailing's smooth, but stagecraft lists freeform and sloppy whenever the set's enormous staircase is packed with party people or protesters.
Actors struggled with lines opening weekend, but the end result was still something to cheer about.
As Charles, James Stuart France had the heaviest load to bear, and the most trouble matching words to action. But when he was on he was on, and very much the evening's sad star — risking the crown to save Democracy. Charles finally catches his elusive dream, stepping into a role he's spent a lifetime preparing for, only to discover he's arrived late to the party in last season's frock.
Jamie Boller is infinitely watchable as Kate, much beloved of the camera. Bartlett imagines her as a less ghoulish iteration of Lady Macbeth driving William (Ian Lah) as he trips and lunges toward glory.
And what about the media who, over the course of the play, turn an ordinary girl's life into a circus shame-show because she had the good/bad fortune to get on with a prince? Playhouse's production never pulls this thread hard enough to make audiences second guess Charles' problematic but moral position; a position informed by his own complicated relationship with the British press. He'd been the king of column inches too, when Diana was by his side, and none of that turned out well for anybody. Now the doomed ex-princess' ghost wanders through this bleak parody, with a punchline on her lips. It only sounds like prophesy.
Tony Isbell and Michael Gravois are the conservative devil (doing the Lord's work?) and Labor's angel (fallen?) whispering treason and hateful policy in the King's royal ears. Isbell's the opposition leader, playing all sides; Gravois the Prime Minister, prepared to go nuclear if he has to. Christina Wellford Scott's also quite fine as Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. It's a smaller role compared to the heavy lifting she's performed in shows like Doubt and The Lion in Winter, but it's pivotal, and one of the best things she's done in a long time.
Charles III's awkward moments will probably stay a little awkward. The rest will tighten with repetition, and from edge-of-seat suspense to meditations on the meaning of celebrity, it was all pretty tasty to begin with.
At Playhouse on the Square through October 9th. Playhouseonthesquare.org