What if Shakespeare wrote about today’s royals, rather than kings from the sixteenth century and earlier? That’s the premise posited by King Charles III, a five-act play in iambic pentameter currently playing on Broadway.
The plot is hypothetical: what if Queen Elizabeth were to die within the next few years, causing Charles’ ascent to the throne? Would Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith), now the third king of his name, be a good monarch?
In a word, no. At least not according to playwright Mike Bartlett. In his first meeting with the Prime Minister (Adam James), Charles expresses discontent with a privacy bill that he believes violates the rights of individuals. The opposition leader (Anthony Calf) helps Charles realize that he doesn’t have to sign the bill into law, even though it’s expected he’ll sign every bill that crosses his desk, much like his mother did.
So Charles, haunted by visions of Diana’s ghost (Sally Scott), refuses to sign the bill, setting off an irreversibly damaging chain of events. And his personal life is just as contentious as his private life—the deliciously cunning Kate (Lydia Wilson) has set her sights high for herself and William (Oliver Chris), while Harry (Richard Goulding) has fallen for Jess (Tafline Steen), an art student and outspoken critic of monarchy (for what it’s worth, Harry and Jess speak in prose).
They’re compelling characters in a compelling plot, but it’s a bit jarring to see a play about living public figures about whom the audience knows a lot. Similarly, it’s strange to hear the characters speak colloquially in iambic pentameter, but that’s what it was like to be in Shakespeare’s audience in his day—his plays were written about familiar figures who spoke (occasionally crassly) in language familiar to their ears.
Under Rupert Goold’s direction, what stymies the play most is the pacing. The show has one interval, following the third act, breaking the audience’s experience into two portions. But since each act rises and falls, the play, as performed, feels like it’s constantly stopping and starting. The text, which is delivered rapidly, is also quite dense, and it can be difficult to fully grasp what the characters are saying, though the general gist of what they’re saying is clear.
King Charles III is a very cool concept for a play, and it’s fun to experience a Shakespearean-style show that resonates with a contemporary audience the same way the Bard’s plays did when they came out. Is Bartlett the next Shakespeare? Perhaps not, but his play provides a unique experience.
King Charles III is playing the Music Box Theatre until 31 January. For more information and tickets, see King Charles III website. Photo by Joan Marcus.