I have always felt a great connection to Prince Charles, the current Prince of Wales, since childhood. He was of my generation, and so when I was in school in England, I met many Oxford students who were his classmates, and to a one they adored him, and felt he would make a great king, when his mother, the still and present queen passed on into history.
And when I was a struggling actor/playwright in London in the late ’70s-early ’80s, I heard over and over again from all and sundry that “Prince Charles will be a great and popular king.” Then I returned to the States to resume my American theatrical career. I still was an avid royalist and always watched the Royal Family’s story play out as an international drama.
Enter Princess Diana and her storybook wedding to Charles. Everything seemed glorious, until it didn’t. Diana had supplanted Charles in the country’s minds and hearts. She was dubbed “The People’s Princess” and they meant it.
Then came the divorce.
Then came her horrid death at the hands of the paparazzi. And then, well, Elizabeth was still Queen and Charles carried on as the Prince of Wales, waiting and waiting and waiting for his mother to die. And still she reigns. On and on. In very good health. In her 80s, with no signs of slowing down, or stepping down. Her mother, the Queen Mother lived til she was over 100. It looks like she will, t00. And abdication is not an option.
So as the long Dies Irae that begins “King Charles III,” the best new play on Broadway, you are left wondering just what has happened and who has died?
And then after the funeral procession ends, the dialogue begins…
Enter Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and King Charles III
My wond’rous Charles you looked composed throughout
You did her proud, for as she would have liked
You never showed your pain, but stood instead
A virtuous man of dignity and grace.
Immovable, inscrutable as stone.
Please don’t. It’s simply what I had to do.
We’ll find no dignity in cov’ring up
The way we feel. What son should, standing
Waiting at his mother’s grave, stop his tears?
Are you alright?
My whole existence has like most of us
Been built upon the ones who gave me birth.
And now they’re gone. That’s it. First Dad.
Now mum. The only truth: I am alone.
Except for me.
It’s not the same, Camilla. The love, with us,
It’s all my life, but never can replace
Parental word, a mother’s hand to hold.
Yes, it is Queen Elizabeth’s funeral procession that we are shockingly witnessing. And playwright Mike Bartlett’s words are (gasp!) in iambic pentameter! And we see the Now King Charles really quaking in his boots at the prospect of finally, in his 7os, becoming the new King. And as you can see by the above interchange that opens the play. Camilla isn’t much help.
Living in England as long as I did, you feel like you are living with the Royal Family. They are ever-present as a topic of conversation and the people still love them and want them. But there are others, England’s left-wing and a lot of the Labor Party, that do not want the House of Windsor to still rule, but they do. Improbably so. Which is what playwright Bartlett’s “King Charles III” brilliantly elucidates as his magnificent “historical fantasy” unfolds. And in iambic pentameter, too!
We don’t need an introduction to the House of Windsor’s characters. Charles, Camilla, his two sons, William and red-headed Harry, and the ambitious daughter-in-law, William’s wife, the beauteous Kate Middleton. We know them as well as any movie stars. But here Bartlett has re-cast them in his own molds. Charles is frighteningly ineffectual and dithering. Kate Middleton is the new Lady Macbeth, pushing her handsome blond husband William forward at every turn. And red-head, hot head Harry seems very much like Prince Hal, straight out of the History Plays
And so Bartlett stages and re-imagines the world apres-Queen Elizabeth. As Kate Middleton says “I never thought she’d die.”
And her death sets up a series of catastrophic events that call to mind Shakespeare’s other ineffectual monarch “Richard II.” I thought for sure I was going to hear “Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad tales of the death of Kings….For in this hollow ground, keeps death his court…”
But no, we hear ECHOES of “Richard II”…and “Hamlet” too, as Mike Bartlett spins out the new history play he has to tell, in his own remarkable words, and his own thrilling plot. With a cast that all seem to be Royal Shakepeareans to a one, as they speak his words, o so trippingly on the tongue.
Tim Piggot-Smith is pitch-perfect as the baffled, weak, but still princely, but not, kingly Charles. Margot Leicester is a maternal, grey-haired Camilla. Oliver Chris is by turns dashing, then ghastly as Prince William, Charles’ oldest, very tall and kingly son..His is a startling performance, as the play builds to its’ outrageous, but inevitable climax. Chris also scored in “One Man, Two Guv’nors” against the ultimate unexpected Tony win of James Corden, now of late night.
There’s also Sally Scott as the ghost of Princess Diana, haunting them all, and still scaring them all to death and turning their lives upside-down, every time she appears. Richard Goulding is a terrific comic foil as the stumble-bum playboy Harry. Who takes a Cockney art student as his lover and is astounded by Kabobs and Burger Kings. He even compares the British Empire to a kabob, that thick slab of meat that keeps getting pieces sliced off of it.
.And Lydia Wilson all but steals the show as the seemingly plastic, but deadly Kate. She makes”King Charles III” a duel to the death…but well I won’t reveal anymore of the fabulous, fictional, but all-too-plausible plot that Mike Bartlett has created. Spun out of inspired gold it is.
I’m sure “King Charles III” is going to win every award possible this spring. But wait, it’s CLOSING, after its limited run on Jan. 31! So run, don’t walk to buy tickets, while there’s still time.
I’m sure the Royal Family weren’t happy with this play. It won the Olivier award last year for Best Play in London. But they never react or respond to anything like this. They are trained from birth not to.
But the acting and the writing are sublime!”King Charles III” is catnip to Bardolators like myself, and like you, dear readers, dear lovers of theatre!