King Charles III – A future history play by Mike Bartlett, Music Box Theatre, New York (11/01/2015 – 1/31/2016)

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Tim Pigott-Smith as King Charles III. Photo © Joan Marcus.

Tim Pigott-Smith as King Charles III. Photo © Joan Marcus.

King Charles III
A future history play by Mike Bartlett; Music by Jocelyn Pook

Music Box Theatre, (11/01/2015 – 1/31/2016)

Directed by Rupert Goold; Associate Director: Whitney Mosery

Scenic Design by Tom Scutt
Costume Design by Tom Scutt
Lighting Design by Jon Clark
Sound Design by Paul Arditti
Associate Scenic Design: David Arsenault
Associate Costume Design: Daryl Stone
U.K. Associate Lighting Designer: Rob Casey
U.S. Associate Lighting Designer: Gina Scherr
U.K. Associate Sound Designer: Chris Reid
U.S. Associate Sound Designer: Tony Smolenski


Tim Pigott-Smith – Charles
Peter Bradbury – Protester
Anthony Calf – Mr. Stevens
Oliver Chris – William
Richard Goulding – Harry
Lucas Hall – Protester
Nyasha Hatendi – Spencer
Rachel Spencer Hewitt – Protester. Attendant
Adam James – Mr. Evans
Margot Leicester – Camilla
Gordana Rashovich – Protester
Miles Richardson – James Reiss
Tom Robertson – Coottsey, Speaker of the House of Commons , Sir Michael
Sally Scott – Sarah, Ghost, TV Producer
Harry Smith – Protester
Tafline Steen – Jess
Lydia Wilson – Kate

When Mike Bartlett conceived the idea for this play, according to an article he wrote about it in The Guardian, his thoughts centered on the figure of Prince Charles at “the moment Charles takes the throne, and how his conscience would lead him to refuse to sign a bill into law. An epic royal family drama, dealing with power and national constitution, was the content, and therefore the form had surely to be Shakespearean.” He was not approaching it with any particular ideas about monarchy, or the royal family, or the state of Britain. He was thinking, not as a political creature or a satirist, but as a playwright. From this mindset, it immediately occurred to him that the form had to be Shakespearean, down to the blank verse—and this terrified him, because he had virtually no experience with the meter, or with any verse. The commission—from Rupert Goold—who directed this production, came faster than the verse. The playwright froze in terror for a while, and then set to training himself in meter, both in spoken improvisation and on the page. Even after his period of thorough preparation, he found that the verse-writing slowed him down. Customarily a fast writer, he liked the deliberation that it forced on him. It also imposed a particular seriousness on him, his project, and his characters. “The verse rejected irony,” he said.

I didn’t know that at the time I saw the play at the Music Box, and, as serious as the play obviously was, and as straightforward its treatment of its characters, part of my mind remained on the lookout for irony. I found it, and in retrospect it seemed like the quality that gave the play its energy and chiaroscuro. Mike Bartlett’s versions of these extremely familiar public figures were recognizable enough, especially if we are favorably inclined towards them through their public personas and our reading of the relentless news about them. Except that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, although we know him to be a decent chap and we know her to be perfect in every way, are pretty dreadful, with few if any redeeming qualities. I can’t believe Bartlett didn’t enjoy a little mischief in creating these characters—as much as in allowing the much-maligned Charles to show his best colors. More important, though, and perhaps the strongest muscle in the play, was the ironic relationship between characters and events and their Shakespearian models. Bartlett knows his Shakespeare well enough and has digested the plays. As a result, his allusions can refer back to multiple models. As one watches and listens, threads of Richard III, Macbeth, Richard II, Hamlet, Lear, and others filter through the mind.

Curiously Bartlett’s blank verse, as a pervasive intertextual mirror of his Shakespearean matrix, seemed one of the most telling vehicles for irony in the play. Now I don’t think that there can be any doubt that whatever afterlife King Charles III enjoys will not proceed from the elegance or expression of its verse, and Bartlett must know that. When he says how pleased he was, speaking with some audience members and learning that they didn’t even realize that the play was in verse, he also seems relieved. In the same article he refers to his doctoral studies in theater and what he learned about Shakespeare’s verse, “We’d learned about the length of time it took to make an entrance on to the stage, the conventions of crowd scenes, up and down, heaven and hell – the mechanics of the stage traffic. Crucially, we learned that this could all be seen, reflected in, and at times indicated by, the verse. There are few stage directions in Shakespeare because the verse serves that purpose. The dramatic action of the lines is related to the physical action required.” This reflects an attitude, eventually a doctrine, widely prevalent in Shakespeare productions of the past fifty years and in actor training today. The philological infrastructure of this method has been harshly scrutinized by Abigail Rokison in her Cambridge Ph.D. dissertation.1 While the method, whatever weaknesses may crop up in its foundations, has proven extremely fruitful in performance—from Cambridge in the 1950s and the RSC in the 1970s to companies around the English-speaking world today—Dr. Rokison may well be intrigued to find in King Charles III blank verse written by a playwright who has studied the method which has successfully made Shakespearean verse comprehensible and appealing to a wide audiences. This shows up in Bartlett’s over-careful attention to clarity, which results in a certain laborious, dry quality. In his printed text, Bartlett even provides a guide to special forms of punctuation, which he uses with some consistency in imitation of First Folio’s panoply of semicolons, question marks, exclamation marks, shared lines, and half lines, etc.: “( – ), (…), and line-ending without full stop.” (Needless to say, the crack cast at the Music Box, most of whom played their parts at the Almeida, tossed this off with mastery and relish.) In spite of the power of blank verse as a mnemonic aid, and a variety of more or less creditable efforts by Sherwood Anderson, Archibald MacLeish, T.S. Eliot, and William Alfred, it is no longer part of a playwright’s toolbox—at least on mainstream stages. Bartlett does in fact see verse as part of the historical epic he wished to fabricate, and therefore he must follow it as part of his agenda. As his lines roll by, often with amusing neologisms, it serves as a constant reminder of Shakespeare’s presence in the wings. For me much of the play’s poignancy came from this distancing irony created by verse. Otherwise, it can’t quite stand on its own.

The real power of King Charles III, however, lies in the characters Bartlett has created. I think we know the Prince of Wales, so often ridiculed for his stands on issues in which he actually had a valid point, to be a man of principle, and it is just conceivable, that, if he were to become King, he might well take a stand on an issue of freedom of the press and speech rather like what Mike Bartlett throws his way on stage…but that doesn’t really matter. The core of Bartlett’s take on Charles and Royal Family is that they are indeed family, subject to  a collective mentality that seems outmoded to most of us today—and certainly to the Duchess of Cambridge, who is thoroughly modern in her eagerness to seize an opportunity, following a plan she has hatched well in advance. The Duke is under her control and is easily willing to ride over whatever moral scruples come to his mind to enable her ruthlessness. In the end, his belief that they are doing the right thing seems more sincere than her own. King Charles, as the oldest and most traditional in the pack, and, oddly enough, Harry, the youngest, who struggles manfully—or rather boyfully—to break loose in the beginning, are the most contained by this…and it proves a tragic flaw in Charles. The Cambridges are well aware of this and know that father will crumble if threatened with ostracism…by children who are clearly unworthy of his love. If they were to offer him a cup of tea he knew to be poisoned, he would have to drink it.

This only begins to sketch out the complex interactions between people who are interconnected, either through family ties or a political function, but who are driven by entirely different motivations and interests. One can outline the plot very simply. King Charles III, in the weeks leading up to his coronation, is justly outraged by a bill Parliament, with the blessing of the Prime Minister, Mr. Evans, is about to pass, which will seriously curtail the freedom of the press under the pretext of protecting the privacy of individuals and public figures. The King sets to researching his legal position, much to the detriment of his sleep, and chooses to go against the modern custom, by which the monarch rubber-stamps the decisions of Parliament, and oppose it. Things become complicated indeed as Charles deals with Mr. Evans and Mr. Stevens, the duplicitous Leader of the Opposition. Their scenes together are among the most absorbing in the play. The King dissolves Parliament and things stop working—enough to polarize his subjects. The body politic and civil society break down. A continuation of the chaos and further deterioration of the situation is averted by the collusion of Mr. Evans and the next generation of the Royal Family. It is a personal tragedy, a family tragedy, and it is by no means apparent that the State and the people will be better off as a result of the fix. It’s the sort of fix that reinstates the status quo, but at a cost—freedom of the press—and it enables Kate to get what she wants. There are knotty complications here, but none disturb the masterful arc Bartlett has created.

The Almeida production, under the direction of Rupert Goold, is a splendid example of the most engaged and polished acting London can offer. It is an ensemble piece, as it should be, with finely etched performances from the smaller characters. Camilla, played by Margot Leicester, is on her very best behavior, but she is vivid in her straightforwardness. In the Shakespearean tradition, Mike Bartlett wanted to give his audiences a fine ghost—none other than Diana herself, and a Cassandra-like spirit at that, Impeccably played, with a convincing blend of vague ghostly confusion and bold as well as cryptic pronouncements of thorny truths, by Sally Scott, a British import, but not in the original production.

Richard Goulding played the restless young Harry, who is desperately set on escaping from the conventionalities and duties of his position, with color, energy, and passion. He accomplishes this by going out on benders. Eventually he finds a more disruptive campaign, falling in love with an art student a friend has found him for a one-night stand. That doesn’t take place—for a while—and they get very serious—humanely supported by his father. To a certain degree the young woman, Jess, is no one’s fool, and Harry faces concerted resistance. In the end, he wins Jess over. She is not entirely rejected by the family, who must deal with sleazy publicity surrounding some photographs she posed for in the past. There is blackmail and tabloids. Tafline Steen, also from the Almeida, gave a performance as detailed and rounded as any of the others in what was actually not such a small part. Her feisty character is no more sympathetic than Harry, and she avoids sentimentality in her final scene. Lydia Wilson made a powerful impression as a steely Duchess of Cambridge, at first passively blending into family roles, then showing her true character as she saw her opportunity and began to work on her pliable husband. In Oliver Chris’ performance, he is decent enough at the beginning, before he recognizes the challenges posed by his father’s behavior. Eventually he is putty in his wife’s grasping hands, not that she hasn’t taken the trouble to explain things to him and make him understand what is good for Britain is good for them.

Oliver Chris and Lydia Wilson as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Photo © Joan Marcus.

Oliver Chris and Lydia Wilson as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Photo © Joan Marcus.

As much of an ensemble piece as this is, the cast revolved around an unforgettable star turn by Tim Pigott-Smith, as the King. It is clear enough that Mike Bartlett excels at writing for actors. Every part in the play, even small ones, are juicy ones, which give the player a great deal of scope in developing the various sides of a part—all astutely guided by Rupert Goold. We first meet King Charles at his mother’s funeral. The family as a whole must deal with the public side of things. Meanwhile they are a properly grieving family coping with a grave loss and as yet unknown changes. Charles himself looks into a formless future. Then his meeting with Mr. Evans sets him in motion, guided by his moral scruples and his educated idea of the British state. He must face people, many of them from the family, people he has known and loved for years, and they begin to change as the situation develops. What a dizzying succession of encounters he faces! From the beginning, Charles seems larger than life, but in the end, as he runs out of choices, he becomes monumental in his impotence.

It is the Ghost who broaches the question of Charles as “the greatest King we ever have,” perhaps dangerous praise coming from Diana, who seems surprisingly affectionate in death. From here on the plot turns about this question and what Charles must do to realize it: through standing his ground or yielding and allowing the rifts to heal…or even abdicating?

Tamsyn Barton, in her excellent book on ancient astrology,2 demonstrates the difference between ancient and modern astrology by casting the horoscope of Prince Charles, following the methods of authorities, Firmicus Maternus and Dorotheus of Sidon. There are many contradictions between the two and among the various methods or viewpoints they apply. The results are extremely complex and checkered, both in terms of life-experience and of character. The changes of fortune Charles must endure are even dizzying. Many of the interpretations appear in Bartlett’s play, but they are so diverse that there is no reason to believe he has read Dr. Barton’s book. (Shakespeare would have found it interesting, if hopelessly technical.) To simplify her discussion to an absurd degree, I could say that one predominant tenor places Charles high on the social ladder, conversing with kings, moderately successful, bookish, even learned, and subject to great ups and downs in his relations with women and in his marriages. However, another possibility emerges which makes him a slave…and what greater slavery is there than royalty?

  1. Rokison, Abigail, Shakespearean Verse Speaking, Cambridge University Press, 2009
  2. Barton, Tamsyn, Ancient Astrology,  Routledge, London and New York, 1994, pp. 115-31.
About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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