“My life has been a lingering for the throne…” —King Charles III With Americans reeling from a deepening governmental conflict that may or may not swell into a full-blown constitutional crisis by the time this issue goes to press, the timing could hardly be more propitious for the Pasadena Playhouse’s staging of “King Charles III.” Mike Bartlett’s Olivier Award-winning, Tony-nominated “future history play,” presented with Shakespearean gravitas and blank verse, thrums with headline urgency as it imagines a constitutional crisis immobilizing England’s government after Prince Charles ascends to the throne.
Many scenarios could conceivably be realized upon the death of the United Kingdom’s enduringly popular, 91-year-old Queen Elizabeth II, who was crowned in 1953 and has lived and reigned longer than any other British monarch. What Bartlett envisions is Elizabeth’s son Charles — the real-life prince of Wales, now 68 — grappling with a thorny issue of conscience as he assumes his mother’s responsibilities as head of the UK’s constitutional monarchy: He upends tradition and reserves his assent to a bill that would restrict the independence of the press — a bill that, considering past tabloid invasions of royal privacy, one would expect him to favor. But King Charles emphatically does not. Instead, in his principled defense of freedom of the press, the king attempts to claim for the throne more power than it has exercised in well over a century, while Parliament defends democratic process. Therein lies the crunchy nut of a 2014 play that questions whether the British crown still has meaningful power in the 21st century, and holds more than passing relevance for American audiences in 2017.
“When I saw it on Broadway two years ago, I was dazzled by how smart and clever and well-crafted the play was,” director Michael Michetti recalls. “But it did not feel terribly relevant to us in the United States. It is arguably more relevant to us now because there are issues in terms of the dangers of restricting freedom of the press, and challenges in a time of political leadership transition, and fights between branches of government, and the danger of constitutional crisis —things that are on CNN every night now, because they’re issues that we’re dealing with in our American government.”
Even minor characters voice eerily familiar sentiments. In a late-night exchange, a kabob seller commiserates with an unrecognized Prince Harry about love, mothers, and the uncertainty felt since the queen’s death: “Since she died the world’s gone mad, I swear. Every night, people have this look … it’s like they’re terrified. They don’t know where they live. They don’t know what Britain is. It’s like this meat here. It’s not one thing — different pieces, different slices, all collected around one core piece of steel. But you take that away? It all falls apart. Maybe she is what held it all together.”
Lead actor Jim Abele says Bartlett’s elegant yet accessible language, which conveys more humor than the streamlined BBC production televised in May, makes portraying King Charles “easy.”
“I don’t want audiences to be scared off by the fact that it’s essentially Shakespearean verse because you don’t even notice that it’s verse sometimes,” he says. “There’s nothing wasted. Every metaphor sort of carries the argument through.”
Noting that Bartlett wrote the play “way before any of what we’re seeing in this country about how the press is treated,” Abele says “it’s scary in a prescient way that he knew that we might be grappling with this a few years down the line” in America. But that is only one aspect of a complexly layered story.
“If you get too bogged down by the political argument, you’re missing the point of how the relationships in the family are so essential to what the decisions are,” he insists. “That, from the emotional standpoint, is universal and really fun for us onstage to be playing out. They’ve got the same dysfunction and jealousy and hurt feelings that we all get with our family.”
The old phrase “At what price victory?” comes to mind as Charles makes his stand amongst characters familiar to anyone with even casual knowledge of the British royal family: his steadfast wife Camilla; Prince William and Kate, Charles’ responsible eldest son and his charmingly ambitious wife; the younger Prince Harry, who seems more emasculated here than his Vanity Fair-courting flesh-and-blood counterpart; and the shy ghost of the boys’ mother, Diana, whose memory and beyond-the-grave scenes (somewhat controversial in England) motivate pivotal plot turns. These are individuals whose public personas are as carefully scripted as their ceremonial speeches — yet the illusion of familiarity persists, and the contrast between the intimately bonded characters and the public figures we think we know contributes to the play’s escalating tension. That they each believe what they’re doing is for “the greater good” contributes to the tragedy of “King Charles III.”
“I love who Charles is in this play,” Abele says. “I understand what he’s trying to say. I understand the conflict that he feels about his convictions, and about how it holds him back from being a great king because he’s just trying to hold to what he believes. So he comes off to me as a very sympathetic character. In the conceptual idea of who this character is in this play, I’d buy it. I’d want him to be my king or president.”
Despite protests in the streets and the presence of military tanks, the crisis is ultimately resolved not with guns but with the brutal corporate efficiency of pens. The effect is chilling.
“The play demands that we look at each character’s actions on the basis of the action, rather than on who they represent in terms of their title or party affiliation or any of those things,” Michetti says. “I think if we look deeply enough at the play that’s a lesson that’s good for us. I don’t think we’ll ever heal our divides unless we find a way to be less partisan and really look at the specifics of the idea that’s being offered, and grapple with that instead of the cult of personalities that we have in politics right now.”
“King Charles III” opens at Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 7, and runs through Dec. 3; $39-$96. Info: (626) 356-7529. pasadenaplayhouse.org