SALT LAKE CITY — What happens when Queen Elizabeth II dies? How will the newly minted King Charles III reign over the vastly different country and commonwealth that he has been waiting so long to inherit? What about the more popular and younger William inheriting instead? How will they solve a problem like the image of Camilla? Playwright Mike Bartlett answers almost all of these questions with his 2014 play, a “future history” written entirely in blank verse and owing many thanks to much of Shakespeare‘s cannon.
The Queen is dead. Charles is now king and mourning son. His family is around him and each member is handling the loss in a slightly different way. This is not the royal family as seen in the tabloids or the TV documentaries, rather this is a romanticized and melodramatic clan that illustrates the archetypes from Shakespearean histories. Charles is bookish and uncertain, at times fully aware of the consequences of every one of his actions and then painfully out of touch with the needs of his kingdom. He is part King Lear and part Richard II, but more sympathetic than both. This new king’s first obstacle, before even his coronation, is a disagreement over a new privacy law limiting the ability of the press to publish personal information. The prime minister and parliament have already voted to pass the law, King Charles isn’t as sure. Thus the conflict of the populace vs. the crown is established, though which side is protecting or possibly ending the monarchy changes in unexpected ways.
As Charles, John Hutton captures the reserved and often-parodied aloofness of the real Charles, warming into a more human and passionate incarnation as his battle with the prime minister intensifies. Director David Ivers has staged much of the dialogue to be delivered straight to the audience, and this is where Hutton is most effective. The audience is able to see every iota of turmoil and discomfort as Charles is charged with upholding (and often trying to escape) the legacy of his mother and desperately trying to carve a place for himself. Camilla (played by Monique Fowler) is royally frumpy and stalwart, fiercely protective of her husband’s title, if not always her husband. She has a delightfully venomous Queen Margaret moment towards the end of the play.
The historical and Shakespearean allusions are frequent and fast. There is a ghost, a member of the family returned to share information to inform decisions. There are tumultuous familial relationships and romantic entanglements seemingly doomed from the outset. Following the play’s plot is easier for audience members who familiar with the last twenty years of royal scandal, from the death of Diana to Prince Harry in Vegas to phone hacking by News International.
William and Kate are the shining stars of the court, representing better possibilities and promise of the future, but also illustrating another layer of embattled loyalty and ambition in the family. William (Grant Goodman) is both supportive of his father and harboring deep resentment about the treatment of his late mother. Kate (Samantha Eggers) is outwardly perfect and admirable, but Machiavellian in her machinations to achieve greatness and recognition. Kate and William are, at turns, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth, then Hotspur and his wife. This is the clearest and most interesting of the relationships in Bartlett’s play, and Ivers’s direction makes it clear that these are the two to watch.
Less successful is the subplot of Harry (played by John Ford-Dunker) and commoner Jess (played by Jess Nahikian). Ford-Dunker’s Harry is delightfully disheveled and obviously treading water in his search for meaning in his superfluous place in the pecking order. He is Prince Hal, conflicted about royal duty and the appeal of the common life without responsibilities of birthright. Jess personifies all of the normalcy that life outside of his family could offer, but she is also a representation of the portion of the modern citizenry that calls for the end of the monarchy. Will Harry abandon duty for love, like his great-uncle Edward VIII, or will he accept his place in the increasingly irrelevant family institution? Ford-Dunker and Nahikian have great chemistry and try to make the metaphor of their relationship personal, but the script never seems to quite give them enough substance to work with.
Larry Bull as Prime Minister Tristan Evans and J. Todd Adams as leader of the opposition Mark Stevens provide depth and access to the social and political context of what essentially is a family drama. Bull’s Evans is the glue holding the premise together, reminding the audience of the law and the will of the people, while Adams as Stevens is the silver-tongued politician playing both sides. Max Robinson gives a lovely turn as Charles’ press secretary, part confidant and part fix-it man, he is a reminder of the greater import of the image of the family and delivers one-line retorts as only Robinson can.
There is a strong ensemble supporting the action and effectively creating the many parts of London where the story reaches. Gary M. English‘s set is both Gothic and modern, reminiscent of the unusual place the monarchy holds in the world. Alex Jaeger’s costume design is appropriately sumptuous and captures the iconic look of the family. Lighting design by David Neville, sound design by Joshua C. Hight, original music by Gregg Coffin, and hair and makeup design by Amanda French all support the grand scope of this new history while providing relatable moments of intimacy.
King Charles III will hit all of the nerd buttons for fans of the monarchy and all things Shakespeare. I was not expecting almost the entire play to be in iambic pentameter, and this was initially confusing. Once I understood what was going on, I enjoyed finding all of the dramatic and historical “Easter eggs” folded into the story. This is not meant to be realistic drama, but rather a fanciful mediation on what could be. Like any good production of a Shakespeare history, this production tells an intimate story on a grand scale and encourages the audience to consider not only past history, but the way the history being made now will be told.