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BWW Review: KING CHARLES III, The History Play Shakespeare Has Yet To Write

You might call Mike Bartlett's abundantly clever and thoroughly engaging King Charles III, now hitting stateside after an Olivier-winning West End run, the history play Shakespeare might have written if he were still cranking them out late in the 21st Century.

Tim Pigott-Smith (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Written in blank verse that occasionally delves into soliloquy (and strategically switching to contemporary dialogue at times), Bartlett set his play right after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, with Prince Charles now assuming the duties of King of England. Those familiar with The Bard's cannon will spot glimpses of RICHARD II, MACBETH, KING LEAR and others, but with a major difference being that the political intrigue is played without bloodshed, working within the limitations of the law.

As Great Britain's oldest prince to ascend to the throne (he'll be turning 67 this month), the excellent Tim Pigott-Smith combines the weary countenance of one who has been dragged through the mud for decades with the brash enthusiasm of a new ruler ready to make his mark in history; though he's aware he has comparatively little time to do so.

The text fluidly explains in dialogue how Britain's monarch holds a symbolic, apolitical position and is kept abreast of parliamentary matters by the country's true leader, the prime minister.

The King's reign begins with immediate controversy when he refuses to grant royal approval of a popular bill that would defend personal privacy by restricting freedom of the press. The prime minister, played with businesslike authority by Adam James, explains how the bill will prevent the media from ruining lives and murdering reputations without the benefit of judges, juries or evidence, but Charles, whose affair with the married Camilla Parker-Bowles while he, himself, was married to Princess Diana was enthusiastically put on display by the press, won't have any part of limiting their freedom.

Traditionally neutral in political matters, no monarch has refused to approve a parliamentary bill in over 300 years, and while his actions won't keep it from being passed, his influence on public opinion can cause quite a ruckus, as exemplified in the play's kicker of a first act finish.

(Oliver Chris and Tim Pigott-Smith (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Political issues also bring about family issues. While Camilla (Margot Leicester) remains supportive, Prince William (Oliver Chris), now next in line to the throne, sees his father's actions as a threat on the country's stability. His wife, Kate (Lydia Wilson), an expert on playing the media, devises a plan that places her husband favorably in the middle of the matter, perhaps accelerating his ascent to the throne.

Meanwhile, William's younger brother, Harry (Richard Goulding), is sick of the royal spotlight and has become smitten over a commoner, Jess (Tafline Steen). When the press gets wind of their relationship, information on Jess' past is uncovered and turned into a front page sex scandal.

And yes, in a very Shakespearean manner, the late Princess Diana is involved.

Designer Tom Scott's unit set resembles a castle's interior with a feature that suggests the continual public display of those inside its thick walls.

The play may be all talk, but within that talk is plenty of action, and director Rupert Goold's brisk and suspenseful production is an engaging adventure. As in Shakespeare, the presentations of real-life characters are not necessarily completely accurate representations, but are better taken as dramatic creations based on their public personas. By taking a peek into the future, King Charles III is history-making fun.

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From This Author - Michael Dale