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BWW Review: Shakespeare Theatre's KING CHARLES III a Necessary Play For Our Times


These are interesting times-not necessarily a good thing; we look around us and see a landscape completely transformed within just the past few weeks. From a stable, quietly (albeit sometimes ruthlessly) efficient government stocked with professionals we now have chaos, leaks galore from the White House, scandals and sudden resignations. In the midst of this chaos sits a leader increasingly frustrated by the natural, Constitutional restraints on his power.

Times like these call for plays that directly address our anxieties; and Mike Bartlett's King Charles III is about as timely and necessary a play as we're likely to see. For all its indulgent verbal sprawl (about that more later) the Shakespeare Theatre Company has served Washington theatre audiences superbly, with a stellar cast and a politically taut drama written in the finely-tuned pentameter that once made, well, Shakespeare himself so famous.

The action takes place during the interim between Queen Elizabeth II's death and the formal coronation of the next monarch, which (for myriad reasons) takes place months afterwards. Daniel Ostling has created an appropriately somber set, all gothic arches and imposing statues of kings past looming over the action. (Through Lap Chi Chu's ingenious lighting, this gothic set also serves nicely as a night-club for the more modern-day Goth set as well).

Robert Joy, in the title role of Charles III, is a surprisingly lithe and nimble presence as the patriarch of the royal family. His impetuousness is evident from the start, as he interviews conservative Prime Minister Evans (Ian Merrill Peakes, every inch the career politician with more than a touch of Farage) and refuses to affix his signature to a bill of Parliament reining in the tabloid press. Joy's Charles III is a man so convinced of his righteousness that he cannot conceive of any possible objection to his prerogative as king. And as any Shakespeare fan knows, this never bodes well.

The political chaos that ensues may confuse, but keep in mind that unlike the USA the United Kingdom has no constitution, no single central document to which all questions can be referred. Instead, royals and politicians improvise and rely on precedent, often the dodgiest imaginable, to justify any actions they choose to take. A battle of wills ensues between the King and Parliament, and matters aren't helped much by the cynical machinations of the opposition leader Mr. Stevens (given a fine, slick and sleazy turn by Bradford Farwell) whose advice to Charles is as confidential as it is destructive.

Jeanne Paulsen puts in a strong turn as Camilla, Charles' wife (whose history should be well known to audiences). Her concern for her husband's ambition is paramount, but her currency is tainted by scandals past. Charles and Camilla's history, in turn, has created an opening for Prince William and his wife, Kate, to steal the hearts of the general public. And Kate - played here with grace and steely assurance by Allison Jean White-proves more than a match to her (step-) mother-in-law. Bartlett saves some of the most cutting, elegant lines for Kate, who is surprisingly at home as a subject of the rumor-mongers of Fleet Street.

This being a Shakespearean drama, there is the inevitable populist digression, and who better to lead us into the streets of London than Prince Harry, who (yes, not unlike the other Prince Harry) spends most of his time clubbing and whoring. His antics pause, however, when he meets Jessica, a student of fine arts who shows him the joys of a life unfettered by ceremony. Michelle Beck's Jessica is one of the highlights of this production, as she coaxes Harry into assuming a more human form and, for all her past transgressions, insists on the dignity of a normal woman like herself. Meanwhile, Harry's encounter with a Kebab Seller (a fine comic turn by Rafael Jordan) teaches us our economic malaise in a nutshell-or, in this case, a gyro sandwich.

Mark Bennett's compositions and sound create a wide array of aural landscapes, regal and common, which illustrate the complex tapestry of the action here, and Jennifer Moeller has created some finely-detailed costumes here, like Bennett touching on the full range of the social register.

Now, about the verbal excess: truth be known, when we see Shakespeare today we're always treated to a heavily-edited version. Directors routinely slash anywhere from 30-60 minutes from your average script. And although we occasionally see "worshipful" productions that insist on giving every syllable its due, the main thing these endless shows do is remind us how right Ben Jonson was when he advised his buddy Will to put a sock in it.

Director David Muse has, wisely for now, chosen to give us Bartlett's script complete-adapted slightly for American consumption. But future productions would do well to slice off at least 15-20 minutes of the verbiage here. And there are some scenes-the Ghost's visitations in particular-which are so obviously derivative they might as well not be there.

When King Charles III opened 3 years ago, the buzz was naturally about how the title character suited our notions of Prince Charles & Co. But with the new administration in Washington, it's hard not to see parallels between this monarch's hunger for power and that of the new resident of the White House. This is a necessary production, one that is urgently needed; even if it is a smidge demanding of our patience.

Production Photo, left to right: Allison Jean White as Kate, Christopher McLinden as Prince William and Robert Joy as King Charles. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes, with one intermission.

Performances have been extended to March 18 at the Sidney Harman Theatre, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets call 202-547-1122, or visit:

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