King Charles Is Robert Joy’s Role of a Lifetime

When the veteran actor Robert Joy was approached about playing the title role in “King Charles III,” he wanted to read the script.

“I’d heard of the play, of course,” Joy said in a telephone interview. “But I really didn’t know how good it was, what a role it was. To me, it seemed that it was the role of a lifetime.”

That may be an understatement. “King Charles III,” by the hot playwright Mike Bartlett, started out in England. It was a hit on Broadway before it made its way west to the Seattle Repertory Theatre and then the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where Joy came to the part.

A Shakespeare Theatre Company production in association with the Seattle Repertory Theatre and the American Conservatory Theater, it is now at Sidney Harman Hall, extended through March 18.

For Joy, who has carved out a long career on stage, in films and on television, you could even say it was, pun intended, a crowning achievement.

“It’s such a challenge,” he said, “because of the way the play has been imagined, written and structured. For all intents and purposes, it’s a Shakespeare play. It has verse, in iambic pentameter. It is about royalty. There are echoes of not just style, but content, lines of Shakepeare’s plays throughout — the history plays, ‘Hamlet’ and ‘The Tempest’ and ‘Macbeth,’ ‘Henry IV,’ ‘Lear’ and so on. But it’s also a very modern play.”

“King Charles III” concerns the current Prince of Wales, Charles, Queen Elizabeth II’s oldest son, who’s been waiting for quite some time.

But the play imagines this: at the outset, Elizabeth in the not too distant future, has died. Amid much palace intrigue, Charles prepares to be crowned, with all the attendant personages we know so well surrounding him: his son Prince William, Kate the Duchess, Prince Harry and Camilla.

“You know, I’m Canadian, and raised in Newfoundland, and to many of us the crown and the royals seemed distant, maybe even a little silly. I can’t say my knowledge of Charles was particularly deep,” Joy said. “Yet here we are, a modern play about the royal family, and what it might mean, really mean, to England and to some extent the world. And, in addition, it’s a very contemporary play in the sense of what’s going on the world. There is Brexit, and all this nationalistic rhetoric in the world and what happened in the States, and this echoes, very much, throughout the play.

“So I came to this, and I did my research — Wikipedia became my best friend, among other sources — and I found the whole experience, as we went along, very moving. I think the audiences everywhere were very responsive. And I think all the thoughts you might have had about the people — we were portraying people who were familiar at some level to everyone — deepened. I think in this play you start to think differently about them. They’re fictional characters, but they’re also people we know, and then again they become truly Shakespearean characters.

“My mission as an actor was to make him clear and real — all eyes are upon the monarch.”

In the play, Charles, who has been languishing while waiting to become king, is eager to become an activist king. When he is asked to give a pro forma signature on an already approved piece of parliamentary legislation that would severely restrict freedom of the press, he refuses. The refusal is historic, it causes consternation, riot, intrigue, outside the walls of Buckingham Palace and inside, where the royals begin to do battle.

“It’s a terrific play,” Joy says. “And the role, you have to keep the audience focused on him. He has to have his own stature.”

The play, as played, moves from a faintly comic, even satiric tone at first, through the richer tones of a history play and finally to tragedy.

When Queen Elizabeth II came down with a bad cold recently, the effect was electric in terms of the company of players. “My God,” Joy said, “we certainly thought about it, especially as she stayed out of the public eye some time. You have to think about it. You go individually and as a group through this — wow, what if … she actually, well, you know. How would that affect the play? And it certainly would have. Thank God that didn’t happen, of course.

“I loved the style, the poetry and verse,” he said. “I’ve done some Shakespeare, so that certainly helps, but speaking the words, the rhythm, I just find that it expands the lines. And audiences have responded to it, to have that style in a modern setting.”

Clearly, Joy is the center of “King Charles III,” and he embraces the part with gusto, a full and unforgettable heart, to create a portrait of a man rising to an impossible and painful task.

Because Joy has been an actor for a while, he’s one of those presences in our heads. Every time you see him on a screen, on a stage, the mind clicks and says, oh yes.

He was in the 1983 Madonna starrer “Desperately Seeking Susan,” he had parts in “Millennium” (as Sherman the Robot), in “Shadows and Fog” and “Radio Days,” both Woody Allen films, and in “Harriet the Spy,” a “Death Wish” film and “Fallen,” among many others. In the more recent “Superhero Movie,” he played Stephen Hawking.

For fans of the several Crime Scene Investigation series — the original “CSI,” “CSI Miami,” “NCIS” and “CSI New York” — he played the familiar role of the medical examiner Dr. Sid Hammerback in 168 episodes.

“No doubt, that was a terrific job for me,” he said. “I’m sure it was this way for other actors, too. The most difficult thing is learning all that medical jargon and making it sound like it was second nature.”

His theater credits are hefty, including the Kennedy Center-produced “Side Show,” and “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” on Broadway. His regional-theater credits include a Prospero in “The Tempest” with his daughter Ruby playing Miranda at La Jolla Playhouse. “That was a joy for me,” he said.

These days and nights, and forever for many theatergoers, he will be “King Charles III” — until reality someday intervenes.


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