It’s only fitting that Sidney Harman Hall, home to the Shakespeare Theatre Company, is hosting the production of William Shakespeare’s latest play, “King Charles III.”
Wait, that’s not quite right. The author of the play, which runs through March 12, is hot new playwright Mike Bartlett, who’s imagined what seems like a startling and effective facsimile. Written and performed in the Shakespearean manner, it also manages to be with it, contemporary and full of sharp echoes of the world’s current political upheavals, both in England and Europe and across the pond.
Bartlett has imagined a world in which the venerable Queen Elizabeth II has passed on and her long-suffering, long-waiting eldest son Charles, the Prince of Wales, becomes His Majesty Charles III, as it were, as in “the queen is dead, long live the king.”
The Shakespeare Theatre Company production, in association with Seattle Repertory Theatre and San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, comes off as an engaging, entertaining, sharp-witted and sharply observed Shakespeare play. It echoes not only stylistic, narrative and character aspects of the history plays, but Hamlet and Macbeth and other plays as well.
The language, which includes soliloquies in iambic pentameter — the thought of which might normally cause contemporary hipsters to run screaming out of the theater — is at turns evocative, rhythmic, stately and cryptically, sharply modern. It’s delivered by a terrific, diverse cast as if they were all to the manner(s) born. It is often surprisingly funny, and, just so, it is often terrifyingly moving and sometimes just plain terrifying.
For Bartlett, this is quite an achievement, managing to imagine real-life characters (as well as some who are not) whose behavior is fully fictional, but whom we recognize instantly. This was probably even more true in London, where the play first surfaced, to much delight and some high-brow disapproval. What the royals themselves thought, we do not know.
The play, directed with a smart swiftness by David Muse, artistic director of Studio Theatre, opens in the dark with candlelight, highlighting figures in black and cathedral-statues of long-ago kings of England. We are witness to the funeral of Queen Elizabeth — an event often thought about, but not until now imagined. The royal cast of characters are all here: Charles, the Prince of Wales (now king); his wife, the much-maligned Camilla; heir to the throne Prince William and his wife, the commoner Kate Middleton; Prince Harry, looking pale and punkish; and, later, a not surprisingly present ghost.
The royal tea bag hits the fan almost immediately, as Charles is handed a piece of legislation to sign by Prime Minister Evans, a bill that severely limits the freedom of the busybody and intrusive English press and media, which has already been signed into law by Parliament. It’s a pro-forma thing that the ruler is obligated to do, part of the job, an act that makes things official.
But Charles, who sees himself as a principled defender of freedom of speech and of the press, balks, refusing to sign without Parliament considering some changes. The prime minister — played with nicely managed aggression by Ian Merrill Peakes — is astonished and digs in.
Charles — egged on by the stealthy, conniving opposition leader (a weasily turn by Bradford Farwell) who never has the king’s back but rather stabs it in public — also digs in, but in a Charles fashion, which is clumsy, without the charismatic affability of his mother or his son.
Things go from bad to worse and worse than that. A political crisis ensues, with the country — like many elsewhere — split on the issues down the middle. There are riots in the street as Charles tries to assert himself and the royal prerogative more and more. To Charles, it’s a question of identity: Who am I and what should I do if I am king? He’s not Jean Valjean, but he is a king who wants to be an activist king after all this lingering, as he puts it. It’s a question Hamlet has asked, as have Henry V and Richard II, looking in the mirror and finding himself still royal, but little else.
Naturally, scheming ensues, and betrayals occur and sideshows are staged, chief among them Harry (a scruffy Harry Smith), always the ladies’ man, falling in love with an unsuitable Socialist college girl (played with passion by Michelle Beck), who also has a naked picture of herself in the hands of half of London. And there is that ghost rambling the halls, a certain princess never forgotten by all of England, who urges on both her ex-husband and her son. “You will be the greatest king of England,” she says, to both.
For this to work you have to have a really effective Charles, an actor who can play an uncharismatic man so emphatically that you can’t forget him. Fortunately, the production has one. Robert Joy, a veteran stage, screen and television actor, embraces Charles and brings out his frustrations, his passion and a kind of intense innocence, swinging from kindness to cruelty (“I am so alone,” he shouts often, while Camilla says, “But I’m here, I’m here,” to no avail”). Joy lets you see the confusion, the desperate need to be something beyond himself, to be a real king.
One of the key subjects of this play is how we — the audience and therefore the people — know people like the royals. We know them only from the pictures, as celebrities, the filmed versions of their lives, the paparazzi. Bartlett imagines them from the inside out as they perhaps could be. Thus, a conniving Kate, a proto-feminist queen-to-be who plots against her father-in-law by bullying her husband into a coup. In a surprisingly angry turn by Allison Jean White, Kate is wise to the fascination that’s out there: “Detail in the way we dress should not be thought as vanity, but is part of the substance only we provide,” she coos.
The fact that this is a Shakespearean play while appealing to our vast knowledge of celebrity is what makes this play both comedy, and in the end, a tragedy. The Bard might have been proud.