King Charles III
Reviewed by Katie Buenneke
Through December 3
Mike Bartlett’s play King Charles III is, in many ways, a snapshot of an earlier era. Given that the whole thing is written in iambic pentameter, you might think it’s a throwback to Shakespeare’s time. Instead, it depicts an alternate history that diverged from our own in late 2015. This is a world where Queen Elizabeth II is dead, Brexit never happened, and American TV star Meghan Markle has yet to start dating Prince Harry.
The show opens at Elizabeth’s funeral, as Charles (Jim Abele) prepares to take the throne. His coronation is months away, but he is now the reigning monarch. When the Prime Minister (J Paul Boehmer) presents him with a bill he finds objectionable, Charles decides (at the prodding of House minority leader Stevens, played by Carrie Kawa) to refuse to sign it. It’s an action that’s unprecedented in the modern era, since the monarchy has no real ruling power anymore. Still, Charles takes his duty to his subjects seriously, and wants to act in their best interests when their elected officials won’t.
Complicating matters is a growing romance between Prince Harry (Dylan Saunders) and Jess (Sarah Hollis), a rebellious art student and a republican (which here means someone who believes in abolishing the monarchy in favor of a republic). William (Adam Haas Hunter), too, finds himself at odds with his father over what the crown’s duty to its people entails, while his wife Catherine (Meghan Andrews) has schemes of her own.
Bartlett’s play is smart and well-realized, though its inherent pacing problems are only aggravated under Michael Michetti’s direction. The verse is so natural as to go mostly unnoticed, though a few characters occasionally use archaic turns of phrase to fit the meter. It’s a nice touch, and a good reminder that Shakespeare was writing about the same kinds of court intrigues centuries earlier. Indeed, with so much ado about who’s going to be king, who’s going to be the greatest king, and even the appearance of a ghost of a deposed member of the royal family (Nike Doukas), it’s hard not to be reminded of Macbeth.
But it’s more jarring to watch King Charles III today than to watch one of its Shakespearean antecedents. That’s because we’re asked to view it as a play that’s predicting a possible future — yet the future it portends is already at odds with the world we’re now living in. The matter so paramount for Charles, freedom of the press, feels like small potatoes in comparison to the chaotic state of British and American governments following Brexit and Trump’s elections, respectively.
After Charles refuses to sign the bill into law, the P.M. points out that Elizabeth signed all sorts of things she couldn’t have agreed with. To today’s audience, the clearest example of this would be the highly divisive Brexit bill, which the U.K. is still trying to parse. As such, it feels disingenuous for Charles to throw the full heft of the monarchy behind protecting freedom of the press, when the future and financial stability of his nation, threatened by Brexit, is a much more urgent issue.
Bartlett accurately predicted the futility of Charles’ gesture (suffice it to say things don’t quite work out for him as he would have liked them to). The problem is that the world has changed rapidly since the play first opened in 2014 in the U.K. and in 2015 on Broadway. While it’s a nice thought exercise to explore the hypothetical power of checks and balances when used as intended, it’s hard for the play to seem like more than idle conjecture in 2017.
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molina Ave., Pasadena; Wed.-Fri. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sun. at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; through Dec. 3. PasadenaPlayhouse.org. Running time: two hours and 45 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.