After rave reviews and awards in London and New York, a new production of “Charles III” opened at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (ACT). Co-produced by ACT, the Seattle Repertory Theatre and Washington D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, “Charles III” will be performed at all three venues.
A Shakespearean-style historical drama that takes place in the future, this creative British drama by Mike Bartlett begins with Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral and Prince Charles’ (Robert Joy, last scene on Broadway in “Side Show”) ascension to the throne as King Charles III.
In the first scene, immediately after the Queen’s funeral, we are presented with the Royal Family. It’s a kick to see them portrayed on stage in front of a handsomely detailed medieval interior castle set (scenic design by Daniel Ostling).The actors playing William (Christopher McLinden), Kate (Allison Jean White) and Camilla (Jeanne Paulsen) have strong resemblances to their real-live counterparts, while the actors portraying Harry (Harry Smith, reprising the role from the Broadway cast) and Charles require a bit more imagination. I confess, I didn’t even realize that Prince Phillip was absent from the play until the second act.
At first the royals’ language, although elegant, may seem somewhat stilted, since they are speaking in blank verse — modern iambic pentameter. It soon begins to sound quite natural, though with Shakespearean flourishes and artifices. Mike Bartlett’s beautifully wrought poetry is a triumph, well worth the price of admission alone.
Having waited for so many years to be King, Charles quickly calls in the Prime Minister (Ian Merrill Peakes) and demands that Parliament rethink a bill, although it has already been passed and merely requires the historical artifact of Charles’ perfunctory assent. But he’s apparently forgotten his mother’s lessons about his duties being purely ceremonial.
Charles understands what he should do, he should go-along to get-along, and sign the bill, but he seems to have a Hamlet-like inability to ignore his inner voice. The plot continues from this point with Charles digging in his royal heels and asserting whatever kingly powers he can muster from historical records and strength of will. His family, particularly Kate, whose steely demeanor resembles a feminist Lady Macbeth, is aghast at Charles’ behavior and, with William, wants to protect the royal legacy for themselves and their children.
Interestingly, the bill Charles opposes would restrict the press from harassing the Royal Family, and god knows they’ve suffered under the scrutiny of the press. But Charles is a believer in freedom of the press, despite its personal cost. The rights of the press versus rights of privacy is a fascinating subject and I wish it had been explored to a greater extent in the drama.
There is an interesting subplot about Prince Harry. He is portrayed as a modern Prince Hal, who wants to renounce his title, become a commoner and live with his commoner girlfriend, the radical Jess (Michelle Beck). We watch how Jess’s life is torn apart by the press. Perhaps her graphic real-life example is more forceful than any intellectual discussion could be.
“Charles III” is a long play, with two acts plus intermission lasting a total of two hours and forty minutes. Keeping the length of the play in mind would have served director David Muse well, since the first act dawdled along without the pace and tension that finally picked up in Act Two. Similarly, Robert Joy, in a difficult and strenuous role as King Charles, got off to a slow and somewhat hesitant start, but he rallied to a heroic though tragic conclusion, worthy of Shakespearean kings.
A serious drama that requires the audience to listen to its language to appreciate its power fully, “Charles III” reveals fascinating issues — the benefits and burdens of democracy, the struggles between fathers and sons and the ways in which men and women gain and wield power differently. “Charles III” is a grand epic, a deeply effecting study of the waning power of kings in the 21st century.
Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2016 All Rights Reserved