Thursday, January 21, 2016

King Charles III

A short time into the future, Queen Elizabeth has died, and Charles is king. Lacking his mother's presence, popularity, and willingness to play the game, he initiates a national crisis by refusing to sign a law limiting freedom of the press. His stance is surprising--after all, his life has been severely affected by the depredations of Britain's rabid tabloid press. But Charles believes in freedom.

Playwright Mike Bartlett is smart to choose this particular law. How admirable that Charles chooses principle over his own comfort and the comfort of his loved ones! Bartlett also wisely shows us that Charles genuinely loves his family and does the best he can for them.

These positive feelings toward Charles are important as his behavior becomes more and more extreme, and his worthiness as a person and a king gets called into question.

We also get to know, more or less, Prince William, who is perhaps more amiable than he should be; Duchess Kate, a lithe, likable, nonviolent Lady Macbeth; Prince Harry, wanting only to have a normal life; James Reiss, the royal press rep so interested in the status quo that he resembles Downton Abbey's Mr. Carson; Camilla, constantly being reminded that she is not enough to keep Charles happy; art student Jess, who may or may not be Harry's route to real life; and various elected officials.

The first act of King Charles III is interesting but not amazing. Bartlett's use of iambic pentameter and a vibrant opening chorale number go far to establish a heightened reality, but not enough to make the play extraordinary. At intermission, I wondered why so many people were blown away by the production. But it is the second act that raises King Charles III to brilliance, as it thrillingly goes full-out Shakespearean.

Beautifully directed by Rupert Goold, King Charles III also benefits from a superb cast, led by the remarkable Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles.

I wish that there had been more costumes. I wish there had been more scenery (although the set is extremely handsome). I wish one or two of the actors had been a tiny bit more intelligible. My biggest complaint is that the sound was so electronic that I didn't realize that there was live music until I actually saw the cello being played. What is the point of hiring musicians only to distort their work into artificiality?

But these are small cavils compared with the excellence on stage at the Music Box. Catch it if you can--the show closes in a couple of weeks.

Wendy Caster
(tdf ticket; 10th row, audience left)

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