How do you say “constitutional crisis” in, er, British?
Winning the Olivier Award for Best New Play after it premiered in London in 2014 and exported to Broadway the following year, Mike Bartlett’s superb palace intrigue drama King Charles III posits a near-future wherein the Prince of Wales ascends to the throne after Queen Elizabeth’s death and asserts his royal power—largely ceremonial in the centuries since Shakespeare was writing this sort of thing—over the elected Parliament. Because Bartlett is a shrewd playwright, he enlivens Charles and his fellow real-life Windsors not only with the same ambition, self-doubt, and hubris that animated Shakespeare’s tragic histories, but with nobler motives, too.
Specifically, Parliament has passed a bill curtailing freedom of the press and King Charles refuses to sign it. Unlike our president’s signature on legislation, the monarch’s seal is understood to be merely ceremonial. Having been elected by no one, he is expected to defer to the will of his subjects. But what if he doesn’t? What if we, the audience, don’t want him to?
Much of what’s expected of the crown—like so much of what we expect of our president, as we’re now learning—is nowhere codified in law. It’s just precedent. It’s just tradition. It’s just, well, unjust.
In keeping with Elizabethan custom, Bartlett has written most of Charles III in iambic pentameter. As Charles, Robert Joy—an actor who doesn’t look much like the Prince of Wales, but who’s a dead ringer for the journalist George Plimpton, who died in 2003—gets most of the soliloquies. He’s as aloof and isolated as any of Shakespeare’s sovereigns; Joy appears to shrink himself once he puts on the regal sash and medals and braids. Providing some syncopation are the scenes Charles’ wayward younger son Harry (Harry Smith) shares with his commoner girlfriend, Jessica (Michelle Beck). These are in prose—the plain talk reflecting Jessica’s low station. But whether it’s blank verse or non-verse, Bartlett’s language is never forbidding. Rather, it gives the show a propulsive musicality that’s all the more impressive for having been created without the lexicon of archaic verbiage the other guy had on his shelf.
Not all the characters are based on real people. Ian Merrill Peakes has always been strong in outsized roles. He’s just as compelling here as Prime Minister Evans, the decent and bewildered—and fictional—leader of the Labour Party. As the leader of the Conservative Party, Bradford Farwell is more circumspect, but just as persuasive. And Chiara Motley has a few memorable scenes as a spectre who beguiles both King Charles and his eldest son William with prophecies of what they might achieve.
Your ability to embrace Bartlett’s fanciful characterizations of public figures may be colored by the degree to which you apprise yourself of royal gossip. (I don’t.) My date, an Anglophile who has lived in the U.K. for extended periods, found Bartlett’s reimagining of Kate Middleton as a scheming Lady MacBeth nudging Prince William towards the throne—“Our column inches are the greatest influence that we possess,” he declaims—laughable. That’s no reflection on Allison Jean White’s lupine performance. She always looks like she knows more than she’s saying. Christopher McLinden’s William is strong, too, showing a credible transformation from guilelessness to resolve. Gangly and baby-faced, McLinden resembles presidential son-in-law and cooling rod Jared Kushner about as much as he does the real-life Duke of Cambridge.
The version of Buckingham Palace that scenic designer Daniel Ostling has built is equal parts church, fortress, and tomb, with high stone arches and the figures of three prior kings looking down on Charles as he paces and stews. This may be the near future, but history—to cite an even newer verse-play that takes poetic license with real folk—has its eyes on him.
At the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall to March 12610 F St. NW. $44-$123. (202) 547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.