I have always been a self-confessed Anglophile. At age 12, I could name all the wives of Henry VIII. In college, I sat in on British history classes. To this day, I revel in the weddings, funerals and babies.
So I looked forward to the Olivier-Award winning and Tony-nominated play, “King Charles III,” by Mike Bartlett, co-produced by Seattle Repertory Theatre, San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater and the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.
But something happened on the way from London’s West End to our Northwest. There is no polite way to say this: I did not enjoy “King Charles III.” I was unable to suspend disbelief. I couldn’t reimagine this royal kerfuffle.
The direction lagged. The script went on and on. And on. It was as if I was watching a play by committee.
“Let’s throw in this.”
“Let’s throw in that.”
“Let’s … etc., etc., etc.”
Playwright Bartlett calls his play “a play for the future,” describing it as a modern Shakespearean drama. He wrote it in blank verse, and infused it with nods to Shakespeare’s best: “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” “that Scottish play (“Macbeth”),” a Falstaffian frolic from “Henry IV,” and one of the Bard’s favorite ploys, a fool who often spouts more wisdom than his betters. And, of course, there’s a ghost.
Bartlett’s fantasy opens with a haunting requiem heralding the death of Queen Elizabeth II (Queen Elizabeth Alexandra Mary). Meanwhile, Prince Charles (Charles Philip Arthur George, the Prince of Wales) is pondering his role as King and preparing for his coronation.
When Prime Minister Evans (a stately Ian Merrill Peakes) arrives for his weekly meeting with the monarch, he brings a document for Charles’ signature, a mere formality for the reigning monarch. But Charles balks, refusing to sign a bill limiting freedom of the press.
The idea that real-life Prince Charles would oppose such a bill restricting the press seems ludicrous. He himself had been victimized by hackers. And who can forget Tampongate, his tacky dialogue with Camilla?
But In Bartlett’s saga, Charles stands his ground, and in the process finds himself caught between opposing politicians. His paranoia leads to fear; he commands the palace officials to add more guards and give them guns. And a tank rolls onto the grounds to defend the presumptive King.
He’s ripe for a coup d’etat — can you say abdication? These fictional machinations between the monarch, prime minister and leader of the opposition evidently delighted English audiences —.but perhaps for American audiences, not so much, especially now that we are dealing with our own real-life political intrigues.
Robert Joy has taken on the role of the future King Charles, following the much-lauded performance of Tim Pigott-Smith on British and Broadway stages.
Despite the trappings of royal regalia, I found Joy’s performance to be one-dimensional and unconvincing, plus I often had trouble understanding his muffled words. He is supposedly the same height as Prince Charles (5-foot-10), but somehow he seemed more diminutive. (Maybe that’s because Charles wears shoes with special built-in heels.) Also, Joy lacked princely demeanor As one audience member remarked, “He’s like a munchkin throwing a hissy fit.”
The actors were obviously cast as look-alikes for their characters, especially Allison Jean White, a dead-ringer for Duchess Kate, complete with gestures. As Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Christopher McLinden bordered on boring. Perhaps purposely vapid to contrast with red-headed, bearded Harry Smith as Prince Harry. As the play progresses, he is temporarily smitten by Jessica, a revolutionary young woman who introduces him to commoner activities, such as MacDonald’s and socialist rallies. Michelle Beck brings a well-needed spark to her role as Jessica. However, my favorite was Jeanne Paulsen, who aped horsy Camilla with her thick mane of hair and her hat askew.
Daniel Ostling created a half castle/half cathedral setting, with three regal statues in arched, alcoves reigning over the action. Although the massive, carved doors were impressive, the room where Charles received the PM seemed un-majestic and stark.
It has long been bandied about that the real-life Elizabeth II would overlook her son Charles, Prince of Wales, and choose her grandson Prince William as her successor. Reports indicate Prince Charles’ favorability has decreased, while his son Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, his wife Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, and his fun-loving younger brother Prince Harry are far more popular.
The character of “King Charles III” bounces between “Hamlet” and “King Lear.” Kate is likened to Lady Macbeth and Prince William to Macbeth, while Prince Harry, now known as Prince Henry of Wales, is patterned after Prince Hal (in “Henry IV”), whose pals included the raucous, fun-loving Falstaff.
For American admirers, it’s both difficult and appalling to envision real-life, Valentine-perfect Prince William and Duchess Kate capable of treachery. Apparently, British audiences relished the idea. Only Prince Harry stayed true to form as a royal rascal.
Anglophiles who leave the theater unfufilled might want to check out Peter Morgan’s “The Crown,” a lavish Netflix-original series. The first season focuses on the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The series unfolds with political rivalries, intrigues and royal romances.
The Queen is now 90 years old and still very much in command. Charles has just turned 68. He has been waiting for decades to ascend to the throne. I felt his frustration, as the Rep production plodded along for a tiresome two hours and forty minutes.
Back in Henry VIII’s time, I might have been beheaded for my opinion. Now, I may be abused on Facebook. But I couldn’t resist an attempt at iambic pentameter.
“Alas, I cannot follow suit.
“Prince Charles the Third does not bear fruit.
“If ‘brevity is the soul of wit,’
“Forgive this scribe and please admit,
“God Save the King prompts us to say,
“Do not delay. God Save the Play”
King Charles III runs through Dec. 18 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, tickets, 206-443-2222 or seatllerep.org.