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King Charles III

A Shakespearean Reach

By Mike Bartlett
Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, D.C.
Sunday, February 12, 2017, K–106&107 (center stalls)
Directed by David Muse

Kate in black dress suit with white shirt, hands folded at her waist stands next to William in gray suit and tie with white shirt standing at a pair of microphones. Standing slightly behind them, Charles in dress uniform with medals, blue sash, and gold braids watches with his hands clenched at his waist.
Charles (Robert Joy, right) watches Prince William (Christopher McLinden) and Kate (Allison Jean White) hijack a press conference in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Mike Bartlett's King Charles III. Below, Kate talks with Prime Minister Evans (Ian Merrill Peakes). Photos by Kevin Berne, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

On our way home after seeing a play—after we've allowed the intensity of the experience (excited or painful) to run its initial emotional and intellectual course—I ask my wife, Sarah, "So what did you think?" When I popped the question after seeing a new staging of Mike Bartlett's King Charles III at Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) produced in association with San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater and Seattle Repertory Theatre, Sarah went on to describe a different play from the one I saw—though we were sitting right next to each other in the theater, were both awake for the entire play, and both enjoyed it.

Sarah, who could be labeled a "Royals watcher" from her infatuation with English monarchy past and present, saw a play about the members of the royal family projected into a future that begins with Queen Elizabeth's passing and Charles's ascending the throne. What I saw was a Shakespeare history play.

The rest of this review will press my point, but that in no way denigrates Sarah's take on Bartlett's play. A learned woman who devours news with addictive appetite, Sarah appreciated and analyzed King Charles III in her sphere of influences, viewing its characters—Charles, Camilla, William and Kate, Prince Harry—in the context of the figures she knows through news accounts. I'm sure she wasn't alone in doing this; the two women in front of us pored over the Windsor Family Tree chart in the program before the show. Furthermore, Sarah reacts in the same manner to Shakespeare's history plays, using the historical records of, for example, the real John of Gaunt, Duchess of York, and Isabella as her context for appreciating (or not) Shakespeare's narratives. Furthermore, married to a journalist and a stout defender herself of the First Amendment (both on principle and by virtue of her lifelong military service), Sarah also was bothered by the connotations of the media-repression legislation that is at the core of King Charles III's plot. This is all good: theater should inspire such individualized intellectual and moral reaction.

But I'm a Shakespeare addict and so took keener interest in Bartlett's Shakespearean purposes. Writing mostly in iambic pentameter blank verse (including some rhyming couplets), Bartlett seeks to transport Shakespeare's method and manner of presenting English history to a thoroughly current context rather than merely updating one of Shakespeare's history plays. Actually, Bartlett goes a bit beyond current context to a near future, which makes sense for one particularly practical reason: the English monarchy has been uniformly boring for the past 300 years. Except for a bit of madness, some dicey infidelity, and an abdication for the sake of true love, England's monarchs since King Charles I haven't generated the potential dramatic and tragic narrative (or the social-political lessons for the general population) as did Richards II and III and Henries IV, V, VI, and VIII, plus a couple of Edwards in there.

Dramatic reasoning aside, in moving to the next monarch in succession, Bartlett is able to portray a national crisis and a power struggle over the crown that channels some of what Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry VI endure in Shakespeare's plays. Bartlett looks at the royal family as is (with Camilla, William, and Kate) and as was (with Princess Diana) and, adding in some key "ministers" and common folk, creates archetypes he can use to tell a story that continues Shakespeare's discussion on royal politics and nationhood. No, you don't get civil wars (this play comes perilously close, though), you don't get princes murdered in the Tower (William's and Kate's two young princes, however, do become pawns in a checkmate move), and you don't get kings slain in castle prisons or on battlefields. But you do get psychological and, depending on your point of view, cultural tragedy.

As for that media-repression legislation, in addition to being a plot catalyst, it serves as both a thematic framework for the play and a subtext in Bartlett's larger purpose. The royal family we only know through media accounts, the chroniclers of our time. The royalty Shakespeare presented were drawn from the chroniclers of his time. At best, these are "alternative truths." Bristle at my using that phrase, but in application both for Shakespeare during the reigns of Elizabeth and James and in 21st century politics, controlling the media message is where real political power lies.

Charles loses sight of that message in the long shadows of his mother's reign—70 years, according to the dialogue. "I never thought I'd see her pass away," says Kate (Allison Jean White) in the play's postfuneral opening scene, meant more as a statement of loss. "I felt the same," replies Charles (Robert Joy), spoken with such matter-of-fact wonder that it incites the first of the play's many laughs on the topic of how long Charles has had to wait to become king. Instead of making himself highly visible, as Camilla (Jeanne Paulsen) suggests and Queen Elizabeth did, Charles withdraws into his library, intent to get beyond his mother's shadow and pack in as much greatness as he can in what relatively little time he has before his own death.

To harness his royal power, Charles decides to turn his ceremonial duty of signing laws into a means for inserting himself into the nation's political landscape, and he tackles the very first piece of legislation to come his way: a law that, in the wake of recent scandals involving England's leading media companies, makes criminal the unsavory employment of certain, digital-age methods of gathering news. The great irony is that Charles has been as victimized by such media practices as anybody, so it is truly a measure of his sincerity that he insists on the legislation being revised to include protections for an independent press before he'll sign off on it. As noble as that sounds, however, his expanding his powers over his ministers who are duly elected directly by the people is a dangerous step toward a return to despotic monarchy. Thus does he instigate a national crisis just days into his reign, even before he is officially crowned.

Charles's tragic flaw is his focus on the past—heredity, history books, his mother—and naively relying on divine right for his foundational power. Scenic Designer Daniel Ostling has set the entire play in a single chamber that looks both like a castle's great hall and a cathedral nave with statues of kings past standing in the alcoves of stained glass windows high on the stone walls. A modern dilemma is thus playing out on an ancient stage with Charles consumed by his trappings. In that sense, he channels Richard II in his soliloquies and a coronation scene when he takes hold of the crown. "It's much heavier than I thought," he says. "And from the side, bejewelled, it looks so rich, but turn it thus," he holds it up vertically, "and this is what you see—nothing." You also see Henry VI in Charles as his desire to be a great king for the greater good of the nation collides with his realization that he just may not be cut out for the job. Though aware that the leader of the opposition in Parliament, Mr. Stevens (Bradford Farwell), is running political circles around him, Charles watches helplessly as it happens.

Bartlett manages to work into his play many parallels to Shakespeare's histories. Prince Harry (Harry Smith) is a Prince Hal equivalent, a playboy who gets away from the palace to hang with the commoners, enjoying Leicester Square, quiz machines, Tube platforms, and Doritos. His mentor is a young student named Jessica (Michelle Beck), who happens to favor abolishment of the monarchy. She is not Falstaffian in age or appearance, but her purpose and destiny echoes old Sir John. Camilla's equivalent is Queen Margaret from Henry VI, constantly prodding her husband to not just behave like a king and defending his royal right to power. Like Margaret, Camilla even strikes a a monarch wannabe. Despite her fervor, though, her words and even her presence seem to be far from Charles's conscious. "The only truth: I am alone," he says after the funeral. "Except for me," she quickly replies, kicking off a running joke pinned to Camilla's superfluous role in the Royal Family.

Of course there's a ghost: It's Princess Diana who haunts the palace and visits both Charles and Prince William (Christopher McLinden), but Bartlett seems to be poking fun at Shakespeare's supernatural visitations, the way this spirit is ridiculously executed (not merely in Chiara Motley's performance, but in the script itself). Even the gardeners in Richard II have their counterpart in Charles III: the Kebab Seller (Rafael Jordan) who likens Britain to the doner on his cart. "Slice by slice, Britain's less and less. You cut the army, that's one bit gone, squeeze the NHS, the Post Office closed, the pubs shut. Devolution. Less and less. Smaller all the time and when does Britain get so cut down, that it's not Britain any more?"

Sitting on a bench with a stone wall and large wooden door in the background, Prime Minister Evans in gray suit and shirt, black and white striped tie, hands folded on a black notebook, has his head turned as he talks to Kate sitting sideways, legs crossed demurely, hands pressing into her lap, a plain blck dress and a far-away look of contemplation.The script has several verbal echoes of Shakespeare, too, not just from the history plays but other works, such as King Lear. When Kate learns how Charles plans to insert himself into the political process, she encourages William to intervene. "But William, why would your father decide to interfere so crassly in affairs of State? My husband, what say you?" "Nothing," he replies. "Say what?" she shoots back. "Say more. For nothing comes of nothing said."

I have not presented this exchange in its original blank verse format in order to give you a sense of how stiffly formal the dialogue can sound (as in Shakespeare, though, some of the nonroyal scenes and characters, such as the Kebab Seller, speak in prose). Here's the above passage in Bartlett's verse format:

KATE: But William, why would your father decide
           To interfere so crassly in affairs of State?
           My husband, what say you?
WILLIAM:                                       Nothing.
KATE:                                                              Say what?
            Say more. For nothing comes of nothing said.

Bartlett's use of blank verse is hit and miss. One factor is in the verse-reading skills of members of the cast who work harder on getting the posh royal accents down instead of the verse structure. This is not an uncommon issue with STC productions, exacerbated by Sidney Harman Hall's troubling acoustic qualities, but Director David Muse, a former associate artistic director at STC and now artistic director of the city's Studio Theatre, seems intent on delivering the action here with the stiff-upper-lip Britain's royalty is known for. Notably, the most vocally and physically dynamic performance is turned in by Ian Merrill Peakes as Prime Minster Evans, who not only is not royal but whose Shakespearean bona fides are well established with his impressive work in many Folger Theatre productions.

Certainly, Bartlett is no Shakespeare in his compositional skills; but, then, Shakespeare was such an absolute master at marrying verse rhythm and verbal construction to emotional power and physical action that even the best of his contemporaries couldn't touch him. Give Bartlett kudos for audacity, at least, and, in fact, much of his text is impressive. He even uses the verse to create allegorical nesting in the manner Shakespeare did. This can get awkward, such as the messenger describing why he's hand-delivering the king's letter to the Prime Minister when
            He might be better sticking to his own
            Long-tested postal system? i.e., Royal Mail?
When it does work, though, you get passages that sound like they could have been lifted from Richard II, even with their modern references:
            For if my name is given through routine
            And not because it represents my view
            Then soon I'll have no name, and nameless I
            Have not myself, and having not myself,
            Possess not mouth nor tongue nor brain, instead
            I am an empty vessel, waiting for
            Instruction, soulless and uncorporate,
            And like I saw on television when
            I was a younger man, I'm Charles no more
            The human being, but transformed into
            A Spitting Image puppet, lying prone
            Upon the table waiting for some man
            To come and then inserting his own hand,
            Do operate the image of the King
            Pretending life, a simulation of
            The outer skin with nothing in the heart.

Evoking the British political satire puppet show of the 1980s might seem a bizarre application of blank verse imagery, but another modern image Bartlett uses carries great resonance. When the nation totters into mob violence between royal supporters and Parliament supporters, a protest forms outside the palace. Charles instructs his defense chief to not only increase the number of guards (allowing for jokes about the guards' primary duties being in the service of tourists' photos) but to place a single tank in the courtyard facing the crowd. What immediately springs to my mind is the famous image of the Tiananmen Square protest and, I suspect, given how the play turns toward its climactic conclusion on this point, Bartlett is operating my mental projector.

There's something more subtle going on here, too, specifically in the images that form in my mind—and Sarah's—as we watch this play. Bartlett shows his hand when, after the Free Newspaper Woman (Motley) describes the fomenting revolution happening on stage around her, she suddenly slips into a Puck-like, rhyming tetrameter verse to conclude her speech:

But none of this is on page one.
Because in truth it's not much fun.
It takes up two to twenty-five
But visually the public's eye
They know will drift to this instead
A photo of a girl in bed.

That girl in bed, by the way, is Jessica, and the Falstaffian power that she has compromised is her image. It's not coincidence that the play's two most intriguing characters are polar opposites in appearance but identical in attitudes. One is James Reiss, Charles's press secretary for 30 years, whom Dan Hiatt plays with confident yet quiet dignity whether he's dealing with Jessica's situation or betraying his boss. The other is Kate.

White's performance seems at first to be nothing but an impression of the real Kate we see in public. Even in her private moments with her husband she's a gracious Jenny Packham model on a catwalk. However, a key hint, easily overlooked during the performance, comes in an early scene when she meets Jessica for the first time and, upon discovering they both share a hometown, Kate lets loose a bonding expletive. It's noteworthy how everybody adores all things Kate (and William), from Charles first greeting her after the funeral with compliments on how good she looks even in a mourning dress—"It's what you've brought to us, a sense of fashion, better hair as well," he says—to the antiroyalist Jessica going star-struck in Kate's presence. But another dimension of Kate, a ferocious one, emerges later in the play, and her purposes become clear when she unleashes this speech on the power of image.

Your thin opinion of us demonstrates
How out of touch you are, and jealous too.
Our looks don't make us cruel, our youth is not
An ignorance, and detail in the way we dress
Should not be thought as vanity, but is
Part of the substance only we provide.
We know the world. Our column inches are
The greatest influence that we possess.

With that influence, Kate reveals herself the most powerful person in the family and on the political stage.

I have to admit, I can't find a Shakespeare parallel to Kate—certainly not in the English history plays (Elizabeth is only a just-born infant in Henry VIII). Cleopatra comes close in wiles and beauty, but while her power projection sways some Romans, her image never conquers Rome itself. Kate has the whole world in her hands. As much as Bartlett demonstrates how Shakespeare might have portrayed today's history in the making, his play also reveals that while the Bard was incredibly prescient with his humanist portrayals and his cloud-capped towers imagery, he probably could never imagine how the media's infatuation with celebrity culture and its spin-off, reality TV, would rewrite the human condition. But he certainly would have appreciated how a woman wielded that as a weapon.

Eric Minton
February 15, 2017

Reader response:

As I watched Kate cajole William into taking power and explicitly letting us know she is gaining her own power by being his queen, and promising to be more than just a ceremonial companion, it seemed obvious to me that she was Lady Macbeth. That's her Shakespearean heritage. Like Lady Macbeth, Kate seems to suggest that William will be less of a man in her eyes if he doesn't make his run.

Andrew Stein
February 18, 2017

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