“The queen is dead. Long live the King. That’s me.” And so the current Prince of Wales commences his reign in Mike Bartlett’s “future history play” KING CHARLES III, now on Broadway after an award-winning world-premiere run in London’s West End. It is a long-awaited ascension, yet one, in the playwright’s provocative prescient vision, that is quickly plagued by political intrigue, public crises, and personal quandaries, as the new British monarch clashes with Parliament over the safeguarding of privacy vs. freedom of the press, and with his own family over the very survival of the royalist system.
These paramount conflicts are not fought on the battlefields, but within the walls of Buckingham Palace, in government offices of the Houses of Parliament, and by protestors on the streets; not with the traditional daggers, swords, and poisons used by rulers of bygone eras, but with words, words, words. Paying homage to England’s supreme master of the genre, Bartlett’s erudite and witty script employs Shakespearean-style soliloquies and verse in iambic pentameter, filled with poetic passages, human dilemmas, psychological insight, and sardonic wit, with ghosts and cryptic prophecies that give nods to Hamlet and Macbeth.
Rupert Goold achieves a perfect balance of humor and drama in the well-paced two-hour-and-forty minute production, as he directs the stellar original London cast of twelve, led by the phenomenal Tim Pigott-Smith in the titular role of the embattled King. His nuanced portrayal is alternatingly powerful and poignant, vexing and sympathetic, as he reveals the principles, pathos, and humanity of Charles, who, in his desire to be “the greatest king,” crosses the thin line between moral conscience and unyielding stubbornness, between noblesse oblige and blind ambition, between the impotence of a figurehead and the tyranny of a sovereign. He is proud then tragic, hero then antihero.
The supporting actors, too, effectively and affectingly characterize their distinctive public personae, as well as capturing the private thoughts and motivations of their characters. The self-indulgent Harry (Richard Goulding) rebels (not unlike Shakespeare’s Prince Hal in Henry IV) against the expectations of his royal lineage and craves “a life of normalcy,” inspired here by the outspoken Jess (Tafline Steen), a revolutionary love (or lust) interest who questions the young Prince’s parentage and his life of privilege. Prince William (Oliver Chris) and his wife, the common-born Kate Middleton (Lydia Wilson, in a standout role that recalls a more rational and subtle, but equally power-hungry, Lady Macbeth), display the effects of their rigorous training for the throne–he accepting and she willfully commanding their ultimate destiny. Adam James as the antagonistic Prime Minister Mr. Evans, Anthony Calf as the opposition party’s more temperate Mr. Stevens, Margot Leicester as Charles’s largely insignificant wife Camilla, and Sally Scott as the prognosticating apparition of Princess Diana also turn in spot-on performances, as does the rest of the consistently superb ensemble.
A regal historicizing tone is set by Tom Scutt’s imposing architectural set and painted gallery of monochrome heads, and by Jocelyn Pook’s ceremonious original music; the opening candlelight funeral procession and choral requiem are especially haunting. Authentic royal costumes and character-defining dress (also by Scutt) are impeccable, and evocative lighting (Jon Clark) and sound (Paul Arditti) fluently signal the play’s shifting moods and changing locales within the stationary scenic design. In short, everything about this production is nothing short of brilliant.
[Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th Street, NYC] October 10, 2015-January 31, 2016; kingcharlesiiibroadway.com.