Friday, November 6, 2015

Review: It's Good To Be The King

We all love to play the “what if” game. And when it comes to the “what if” game in Britain, Mike Bartlett plays an epic version. In King Charles III, a royal fan fiction, Bartlett writes a future history play that depicts an England after the longest reigning monarch dies.
photo by Joan Marcus
On September 15th, 2015, Queen Elizabeth II became the longest reigning British monarch. King Charles III chronicles life in the hands of Charles, Prince of Wales after taking the throne following the fictional death of his mother. After disagreeing with the passing of a bill about privacy, King Charles impulsively dissolves Parliament sending the UK into a tailspin. Playing like a 21st Century Shakespeare with all the elements that make a dramatic history great, King Charles III is a royal thriller of epic proportions. From betrayal, greed, power, love, and familial woes, Bartlett covers it all. And in stunning fashion. The way Bartlett crafts his piece, he fills it with pentameter and soliloquies, yet the language is accessible in a perfectly heightened manner. It’s an ambitious endeavor in which he undoubtedly succeeds. But language aside, the characters that Bartlett molds are fascinating. There are clear comparisons to many of the infamous archetypes in Shakespeare's canon, yet Bartlett styles these real life characters into richly deep people with genuine flaws and desires. Charles is an intently loving father who is hesitant in his role yet wants to do right for his family and his people. Harry is a boy born into a world of privilege but is willing to give it all away for a life of normalcy. William and Kate are a power-thirsty duo eager to ascend to glory. And the list goes on and on. The people Bartlett writes about are recognizable but by giving them humanity and humility, he allows us to see them through a different lens that goes beyond the circus the Royal Family has become. Bartlett maintains extraordinary high stakes that keeps the audience on the edge of their seat. And just when you thought the story couldn’t get better, Bartlett offers even more. To pin point the best scene of the play would be unfair but the scene that highlights the balance of royalty and family is the scene late in Act II that pits Charles vs. William. After his wife nudges William to convince the King, his father, to step aside and let the Duke and Duchess take over the monarchy to bring order to the state, we witness the battle of politics and family. Seeing the struggle of both men trying to put aside their blood for the sake of government was heartbreaking. It’s moments like this that define the greatness of Bartlett’s story. And to truly pay homage to Shakespeare, Bartlett couldn’t help but integrate a prophetic ghost in the form of Princess Diana. It could have totally come off as hokey but Bartlett and director Rupert Goold managed to make her loomingly dramatic.
The company of King Charles III is comprised of many who took the leap across the pond from the West End production. And they are well-versed in Bartlett's text. Taking on the titular role, Tim Pigott-Smith was divine. The range Pigott-Smith brought to the King was effortless. From meekly taking power to firmly abusing power to defiantly relinquishing power, Pigot-Smith ran the gamut. Taking on The Sun’s favorite Ginger, Richard Goudling as Harry was one of the most dynamic people in the piece. Goudling’s performance was brilliant, bringing a different side to the notoriously bad prince. He shed new light on a young man in constant turmoil. As Britain’s Barbie and Ken, Oliver Chris and Lydia Wilson as William and Kate not only looked the part, they captured the essence of royalty. Without saying a world, the way Chris and Wilson entered the play immediately identified their characters, garnering a mighty laugh. It took some time to warm up to Chris’s William but once he came to blows with his father, Chris becomes illuminated. Wilson’s Kate was reminiscent of Lady Macbeth. You loved watching her calculated moves that ultimately led to capturing the one thing she desired: the crown. Since this is truly a family drama, you can’t count out Margot Leicester’s Camilla. As the downgraded version of Diana, Leicester’s Camilla wanted desperately to be the glue that kept the family together but was usually relegated to the jester without a clue to the truth. Her descent was almost as tragic as Charles’.
photo by Joan Marcus
The tone of this play was important to how it would be received. Director Rupert Goold not only managed to capture the essence of Bartlett’s vision, he did it with the greatest of ease. Goold’s approach was precise and intricate, never exposing a single crack. The majority of the staging was placed on the carpeted tiered platform in the center of Tom Scutt’s enormous brick set and yet the simplicity of Goold’s staging rarely felt repetitive. The lighting by Jon Clark was simple and effective. There were moments that actors were slightly in shadow on certain tiers of the set, but Clark’s flashy display at the top of Act I and Act II were so mesmerizing that you can forgive those awkward moments. For those who are unsure what sound design is and why it is important in theater, reference King Charles III. Sound designer Paul Arditti and composer Jocelyn Pook not only set the mood of the play, the way the sound and music was integrated surely altered the action. Between the moments when the live music creeps in, yes there are two live musicians positioned in one of the boxes, to the tone of the transitions, this Arditti and Pook design propelled King Charles III. Schutt, who took on the role of costume designer as well, kept the ensemble in character perfect blacks to allow their regality to shine. The moment Charles appears in his royal costume was a showstopper.
Like Cock, Mike Bartlett knows how to write a relationship play well. Bartlett’s views of British politics are certainly present but by masking it in a well-rounded character driven drama, Bartlett allows them to come naturally. King Charles III may appear daunting but it is a must see for theater lovers and theater goers alike. It would be a shame if the Bartlett’s future history doesn’t get recognized come Tony season.

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