The year is 2020, say, and beloved English monarch Elizabeth II has just died that's perhaps jumping the gun in terms of a prediction, though, given that she's only 90 this year and her mother lived to 101. Prince Charles is finally ready to ascend to the throne and England prepares for its first coronation since 1952. That is the premise of the Olivier Award-winning best new play of 2014, King Charles III, which was Tony-nominated in its Broadway production earlier this year and just made its West Coast premiere at ACT last night. What happens, then, if the never especially camera-loving Charles decides to upend a couple of centuries of tradition and begin meddling in affairs of state and the House of Commons, effectively deciding that, because it's legal to do so, he has the right of veto in house bills now something his mother, and several generations of monarchs before her, never did? And what if you take Charles, Camilla, William, Kate, and Harry and imagine them as fictionalized figures in a Shakespearean tragedy/history play?
Playwright Mike Bartlett imagined this winning idea, and the new SF production executes it to great effect lending to the contemporary royal family the gravitas and wit of Shakespeare's iambic pentameter, with occasional rhyming couplets as they close a monologue and exit stage right. Britons might not take the royals too seriously anymore and in the last two decades, particularly after the spate of divorces in 1992, dubbed by the Queen her annus horribilis, not to mention the Las Vegas antics of Prince Harry, they seem much more common and relatable in their tabloid fodder. But in the universe of King Charles III, we're looking back on them as important figures in an important moment in England, just as Shakespeare did for two Richards, three Henrys, and King John as well as the Scottish king Macbeth, and the Danish prince Hamlet.
Bartlett says he came up with the idea of a struggle over the national constitution, with five acts and Charles as a tragic central figure, and he knew that as an epic royal drama "the form had surely to be Shakespearean." Also, he figured Harry would come with his own comic subplot, a la Henry IV in which Hal, the future Henry V, is a wastrel who spends his time in taverns with a charismatic drunk named Sir Jack Falstaff.
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The Shakespeare models flew forth easily from there: Charles would be akin to Richard II, with nods to Hamlet, Lear, and Macbeth; Kate was obviously Lady Macbeth, pushing for her own husband to take power; William becomes a bit of a confused Hamlet, unsure who to trust; both Charles and William are visited at night by a ghost, Diana, who encourages each of them to seize power; and Camilla intercedes as a sort of impotent Gertrude, trying to keep the peace.
For fans and watchers of the royals themselves, the play is a funny imagined look inside one improbable version of their future, as well as an intriguing premise to consider: What if calm and civil England could descend into chaos, or even civil war, just via a few anti-democratic actions by a monarch?
As Charles, actor Robert Joy (whom some will recognize as Madonna's lost boyfriend in Desperately Seeking Susan, 30 years on) is funny and bumbling, though his stage voice is maybe the weakest of the cast in a play dense with talk. Ian Merrill Peakes is terrific as Prime Minister Evans, as is Harry Smith as Prince Harry, reprising the role from the Broadway cast. Also great is Michele Beck in the role of Harry's tabloid-fodder love interest, Jessica.
Direction by David Muse is swift throughout, while all of the cast get moments to shine and prove their mettle at iambic pentameter, with very few lines ever lost.
At two hours and forty minutes (including intermission) with all that semi-formal speech, this is no beginner's bit of theater, and requires some keen attention and stamina. But the payoff is more than satisfying come the second half, once you stick it out, and Bartlett's poetry and prose, replete with contemporary references to texting and tabloid TV, are lots of fun and go down very easy, if you're in the mood for a little soliloquy.
King Charles III plays through October 9 at ACT. Tickets here.