A review of Mike Bartlett’s “King Charles III,” a coproduction of Seattle Repertory Theatre, American Conservatory Theatre and The Shakespeare Theatre Company.
In William Shakespeare’s day, Britain was suffering from an acute case of succession anxiety. Who would replace the all-powerful but childless Queen Elizabeth I? Who would command the court and the masses after her demise?
Trepidation over the transfer of state authority underpins many of Shakespeare’s quasi-historical accounts of rulers shrewd and inept, beloved and hated, triumphant and overthrown.
In his marvelously stimulating what-if saga “King Charles III,” crisply staged by David Muse and commendably acted at Seattle Repertory Theatre, author Mike Bartlett focuses on the British royals, and writes in iambic pentameter, the Shakespearean metric verse form containing five beats, or accents, per line.
‘King Charles III”
by Mike Bartlett. Through Dec. 18, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St.; tickets from $16 (206-443-2222 or seatllerep.org).
But this provocative, witty and cleverly constructed fantasy is set amid succession angst in our own time, a time when monarchs tend to be instruments of ceremony rather than democratic heads of state — until one tries to buck the trend.
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Bartlett’s speculative drama (co-produced here by the Rep, American Conservatory Theatre and The Shakespeare Theatre Company) opens just after the death of the popular Queen Elizabeth II, with the funereal pomp and circumstance of a candlelit procession set to a convincing mock requiem. Other trappings of ancient royalty are evident, in Daniel Ostling’s looming castle/cathedral set, and in the way heir to the throne Charles (the excellent Robert Joy) often speaks in the plural tense (the royal “we”).
Yet there’s nothing quaint about the main event here: a national struggle over who exerts power, how it is wielded, and the impact of the media and marketing on the body politic. (America is not Britain, but these are resonant concerns as an unpredictable new leader takes the reins of power on this side of the pond.)
In Bartlett’s scenario, the coronation of Joy’s initially tentative, diffident Charles is soon at hand. But His Majesty suddenly shakes things up by overstepping the line between monarchy and democracy. On principle he openly decries and refuses to sign a bill just passed by Parliament. It limits some powers of the British press, on the grounds that London tabloids have run amok with wiretapping and other breaches of privacy used to get juicy scoops.
Charles considers the legislation a threat to free speech. But his bold defiance shocks (fictional) British Prime Minister Evans (Ian Merrill Peakes), who reminds him the royal signature is merely a formality, and the king a rubber stamp for parliamentary rule.
When Charles won’t relent, a national crisis ensues. Evans and the minority political leader Stevens (Bradford Farwell) try cajoling, arguing and finally plotting against him. And with the royal family “brand” at stake, Charles’ heir William (Christopher McLinden) and his wife, Kate (Allison Jean White), are soon drawn into the fray.
As Charles struggles to assert his lineage, younger son Harry (Harry Smith) rebels too, falling for a boho anti-royalist protester (the enjoyably cheeky Michelle Beck). Their affair is a social-media scandal waiting to happen.
The voyeuristic pleasure in “King Charles III” is the way it riffs off tabloid accounts of the real British royal family. Most ingeniously, it subverts the glamorous, dutiful image of Kate, here a closet feminist not content to be a “plastic doll” for public display. (Turns out she’s a far better palace strategist and power broker than her more passive hubby.)
But for classical-theater lovers, the literary coup in this Olivier Award-winning script is the nimble fusion of modern slang (with a few too many fast-food jokes) and Shakespearean cadence, and the many allusions to Shakespeare’s canon. Bartlett borrows fruitfully from “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” with their royal ghosts and treacheries. And from “King Richard II,” and “King Lear,” also portraits of rulers fending off existential threats to their legitimacy.
As in Shakespeare, “King Charles III” views those enthroned with both alarm and empathy. “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” declares the title sovereign in “King Henry IV, Part II.” And so it goes, whether one reigns from Buckingham Palace or a 5th Avenue tower.