Watching an aging white man cling to power—to which he feels entitled but did nothing to earn—might sound grossly unappealing at the moment, but don’t let that dissuade you from seeing King Charles III, Mike Bartlett’s brilliantly crafted, winningly acted play now running at Seattle Rep.
In fact, there might be no time like the present for a behind-the-scenes look at the machinations that keep the powerful in power, as well as the role of the media in public perception, and thus in modern politics.
As the play opens, we’re in a possibly not-too-distant future, in which Queen Elizabeth II of England has just died and her eldest son, Charles, Prince of Wales, is due to ascend the throne. (For accuracy’s sake, let it be said that as of this writing the Queen is 90 years old and doing very well; Charles is 68.) Haunting, thick choral harmony fills the stage, which is ringed by stone and statues of past kings—if they could have pumped in the scent of ancient church, it would have been perfect. Daniel Ostling’s set, with help from elegant lighting by Lap Chi Chu (and actual torches), manages to feel both imposing and enveloping—a neat trick that nicely reflects the monarchy itself.
Charles, pacing in the wake of his mother’s funeral, chides himself for being “inscrutable as stone,” unwilling or unable to cry. But his grief is soon subsumed by his focus on the future—in what will certainly be a brief reign, how will he create a legacy?
Apparently, by following his conscience and not the accepted protocols that, in his mind, keep the royal family “a pretty plastic picture with no meaning.” For decades, his mother signed the bills brought before her by the Prime Minister, drafted and approved by the country’s elected officials. Charles, in his first days as monarch, is confronted with a bill that would limit the freedom of the press. The Prime Minister and the Parliamentary majority are in favor of the bill, which they think would limit the press’s ability to tap phones and print up-skirt photos with impunity. But Charles, who has every reason to distrust the press given that paparazzi ultimately caused Princess Diana’s death at age 36, fears a slippery slope and sides with the opposition.
So will he or won’t he sign the bill, a formality considered ceremonial but which is technically still required? For Charles, the lure of power is too great, the siren song of his place in the history book. When the Prime Minister connives to circumvent Charles’s wishes, the new King unexpectedly exercises some forgotten but still-on-the-books rights as monarch—and throws the country into chaos.
Bartlett wrote the play in blank verse, the rhythm of Shakespeare, of centuries-old stories of kings and queens, intermingling soliloquies and the occasional ghost with modern humor. That humor peeks through even as Charles rationalizes his own power, because after all his country wasn’t founded on principles of democracy. “Like GPS on a car, it does not come as standard, and the car will function well without,” he says. “It’s only in the last 500 years that politicians and democracy have led the way in policy,” he explains. (Related: If there a phrase more stomach-churning than “anointed power” when it comes to 21st-century politics, I don’t want to know it.) David Muse directs a universally excellent cast of both local and imported talent, produced as the show is in association with American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco and DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Robert Joy plays Charles as almost a reverse Lear; rather than abdicating long-held power, Charles scrabbles fecklessly with bloody metaphorical fingernails to hang on to power he never wielded. He aims to gather his children around him, rather than pit them against each other. He unravels all the same, petulant but unsure, unsupported by those closest to him.
Will the people see him as weak if he just does what he’s told? Do they see the monarchy as puppet figureheads? Does the country still need a monarchy? What’s the value, to country and commonwealth, of royal stability? Does is matter what you do or what it looks like you do? As is mentioned many times throughout the play, “what the public sees” is all.
Those closest to him are all in attendance, each playing his or her part in the complicated machinery of a creaky institution, angling for power and what they think is right. Beloved Prince William (Christopher McLindon) and his wife Kate (Allison Jean White), a commoner who landed in the halls of power and sees its inner workings more clearly than most. Young Prince Harry (Harry Smith), who strains against what he feels are the confines of his birth with the help of a beautiful, brash student named Jessica (Michelle Beck), un-enamored of the royals and all they represent. Those long-employed by the royal family are as dedicated to the family members themselves in maintaining the status quo.
Because the play is so cannily written, I couldn’t winnow out Bartlett’s own agenda, if he had one. Every side was given equal weight and credibility, every facet of this carefully cut stone was morally fallible and morally upright (with the odd exception of Camilla, whom the playwright seemed to have it in for, painting her as a sort of bumbling Lady MacBeth, though Jeanne Paulson played the hell out of her).
It would be nice if this were a death rattle of a play, a document of ancient power structures eroding into dust. King Charles III was a huge hit on the West End in 2014 and Broadway in 2015, but post-Brexit and post-2016 election, as America heads into its own transition of power fueled by skewed public perception, the play’s shifting political relevance is undeniable. Should the people be allowed to choose, even if they make the “wrong” choice? Can someone truly be “born to rule?” When should you resign and when should you revolt?