If there was such a thing as a contemporary Shakespeare tragedy, “King Charles III” would come awfully close to filling the bill. Mike Bartlett's whipsmart drama described as "a future history play" presupposes the death of Queen Elizabeth and the impact on the British monarchy. With a bow to Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, you name it...and a mighty assist from director Rupert Goold leading a bravura ensemble, Bartlett earns the mantle as our modern day Bard.
Set in the near future just after the Queen’s funeral, Charles becomes King. He is both overwhelmed and confused about his role atop the British throne. And when he learns of a proposed new law that would curb press freedom in an effort to protect the privacy of British citizens, he refuses to give his consent. He takes a principled stand, saying that it betrays the constitutional guarantees of free speech. It’s a laudable position but given that the British monarchy is merely ceremonial these days, it doesn’t sit well with the politicians and he inadvertently sets off a firestorm in the country.
Written in blank verse and given to blazing eloquence accompanied by a lush Requiem, the production sets a lofty goal for itself. That it succeeds so impressively is a tribute to a brilliant collaboration featuring a sublime cast as the real life Windsors.
Bartlett isn’t likely to get an invitation to Buckingham Palace anytime soon. He took great liberties portraying some members of the family as scheming usurpers. William and Kate certainly look the part as the golden couple. Harry fights his reputation as the drunk uncle. Camilla is appropriately fluttery as Charles devoted wife. And there are assorted fictional characters who juice up the conflict. Even Diana appears as a ghost.
Tim Pigott-Smith takes his place among the most tragic of embattled monarchs in Shakespearean drama; and to his great credit, he reaches the heights and depths of those great roles without spilling a drop of blood.
With spots of humor mixed in, Bartlett’s “King Charles III” raises that age old question – why and how does the British royal family still exist? And if we get no easy answers, Rupert Goold’s sterling company treats us to the most entertaining story of palace intrigue this side of the Renaissance.