By Tristan Lejeune
For a man who’s been Britain’s heir to the throne longer than anyone else in history, Prince Charles has never seemed fully comfortable in his own skin.
Somewhere amid very publicly marrying a beautiful woman, cheating on her, divorcing her, and then marrying the mistress, His Royal Highness started to feel … not so high. And that’s ignoring the infantilizing awkwardness that comes from a man pushing 70 with the title “prince.”
So among the niftier tricks pulled off by King Charles III, performing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall until at least March 12, is presenting the oldest child of Queen Elizabeth as a figure of sensitivity, contemplation, and profound dignity. As played (very well) by film and TV veteran Robert Joy, you like Charles right away. More surprisingly, he often seems to like himself.
King Charles III, written by Mike Bartlett and directed by David Muse, grabs from the “Concept” bin with both hands. It imagines a not-too-distant future where QE2 has died and Charles reigns as king, for one. And it presents that future largely in Shakespearean verse — modern vocabulary, but in iambic pentameter with rhyming couplets signaling the ends of scenes.
The conceit, the problem and the lynchpin are all this: Charles has inherited a crown with no power. In the 21st century democracy that is the United Kingdom, the House of Windsor is little more than a breeding ground for figureheads. So when the new king, who is as quick to ignore precedent as he is to adopt the royal “we”, refuses, on moral grounds, to grant his assent on a bill after it passes Parliament, it hurls the country into constitutional chaos.
Camilla, William, Kate, and “ginger” oddball Harry are all along for the ride; little George and Charlotte are alluded to offstage. But Bartlett’s script, thankfully, doesn’t let too much Shakespearean intrigue follow the blank verse — there may be a ghost haunting Buckingham Palace, but don’t expect murder plots or witches.
What you can expect is a refreshingly human drama, told through great performances. No one resembles their real-life counterpart too much (Allison Jean White’s steel-willed Kate comes closest), so they abandon imitation to make the parts their own. Jeanne Paulson is forceful and loyal as Camilla, Christopher McLinden is an inscrutable Prince William, and Joy is bloody brilliant as the title character, giving soliloquies in stone halls as Britons amass in protests outside.
In one of his best speeches, the Charles who would be king compares the U.K.’s representative government to the GPS in a car — very useful, but hardly a must-have for getting where you need to go. Joy does more than let us inside the character’s head, he shows us a king we want to root for, even when he’s wrong.
Also worthy of three cheers are Ian Merrill Peakes and Bradford Farwell as the Labour prime minister and leader of the Conservative opposition, respectively. The modern equivalent of chief courtiers, the two actors delight in chewing into regional accents as they plot and ponder.
Less interesting and believable is a subplot about Harry wanting to ditch all the pageantry and ermine and run away with a commoner he met in a dance club. Has Prince Harry ever seemed miserable to you? Me neither.
But as long as the king and his ministers hold the stage, Charles III is a good place to be. The law which he refuses to approve is a noxious anti-press freedom measure, for those who like things timely. British tabloids do indeed aim for the jugular, but even they would be kind to this show.