Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III at the Harmon Theatre for Performing Arts (directed by Studio Theatre’s David Muse) has caught a wave of popularity that draws on the American people’s innate fascination with anything having to do with the British royals. The play also exposes the very modern feminist yearnings of those queens, princesses and consorts of yore who, finding themselves mere ornaments in the royal pageant, yearn like Lady Macbeth to become “unsexed” and battle with men on an equal playing field. Likewise, Prince William’s wife, Kate Middleton (the Duchess of Cambridge), and Charles’s Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, must content themselves with acting through their husbands whom they must convince, cajole and bully to “screw their courage to the sticking place” and “ride the tide in the affairs of men . . . which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”
Now to the plot: after waiting around for the better part of six decades, Charles has been elevated to the throne by the death of his mother, Elizabeth II. In referential Shakespearean iambic pentameters, Bartlett’s Charles bemoans the shrunken self he has become during the long wait.
My better thoughts—they are
From scratch, slow cooked and brewed with time.
My life has been a ling’ring for the throne
Charles, however, is somewhat of a royalist Jacobin. He feels strongly about the freedom of the press despite the press’s having routinely savaged the royal family over the years. Having previously paid little attention to the flow of Parliamentary business, Charles is taken aback when the Prime Minister during his first audience with the King requests His Majesty’s approval of legislation passed by Parliament purporting to restrict the press from invading the privacy rights of individuals.
Charles’s refusal as a matter of constitutional principle to sign the press bill triggers a constitutional crisis as both parties coalesce to defend the Parliament’s supremacy against a King who has chosen to re-assert long abandoned royal prerogatives to nullify legislation -- prerogatives that have not been exercised since the days of George III. Charles has consulted Walter Bagehot, a 19th century authority on the unwritten English Constitution, and is disconsolate to learn that his role is limited by precedent to being consulted, proffering advice and, in extremis, warning the government of the day when it appears to be embarking on precipitous action.
When the parties push back demanding that he sign the bill, Charles rallies and moves to dissolve Parliament and call for a snap election. Parliament refuses to dissolve itself. Riots break out in the major cities of the United Kingdom, and there is a fear that the rioters will storm Buckingham Palace. The King moves additional troops onto the Palace grounds and stations a tank in front of the Palace.
In the meantime, we are introduced to the next generation of Royals: Prince William (second in line for the throne) and his wife, Kate Middleton, the exemplar of good sturdy Anglo-Saxon stock; and William’s feckless younger brother, Prince Harry, who inhabits the demi-monde of swinging London, takes up with Jessica, an artist from the West Indies, and seems to want to have nothing further to do with his father and stepmother, Camilla.
The Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition both come forward to demand an audience with Prince William and Kate. They are there, the politicians state, to reassert the constitutional prerogatives of the Parliament against usurpation by the crown. They drive home the principle that Parliament is “the decider” in the British constitutional system by threatening legislation stripping the Crown of whatever is left of its royal prerogatives unless Charles signs the press bill. It is at this point that Kate gives William a good spine stiffening, telling him that he is duty bound to stand up to Charles for the sake of both the crown and their son, George, who will someday be King. Camilla, for her part, counsels Charles equally steadfastly to resurrect and breathe new life into the fast vanishing royal prerogatives and urges him to not go all wobbly on his duty to the crown and its prerogatives.
Kate and William conspire with the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition to launch a coup against Charles. Kate pushes William into the “sticking place” of mediating the constitutional dispute between Crown and Parliament. When Charles is about to make a speech to the nation giving the rationale for his actions, Kate and William wrest the microphone from his hands, demand that he sign a letter of abdication and play the “grandchild card” to seal the deal (Charles realizes belatedly that he will never see his grandchildren again if he doesn’t sign). Prince Harry (like the Shakespeare character) gives up his dissolute ways, ditches Jess and takes his place as an heir to the throne. The play ends with the coronation of William and Kate and Charles slumping off despondently stage right.
As for the actors, Jeanne Paulsen as Camilla and Allison White as Kate have the requisite Thatcherite steel for their parts, but one wishes that Robert Joy’s Charles were a bit less wimpish. In keeping with his Shakespearean meme, Bartlett’s Prince Harry is clearly meant to evoke Falstaff’s companion, Prince Hal, but Harry White lacks the range required to transform Prince William from the louche rogue reveling in the world of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll on the mean streets of London to something approximating the transformation that Prince Hal makes at his father’s deathbed when he realizes that he will soon be King with all the attendant responsibilities of 15th century kingship.
The play benefits from catching a wave in the affairs of politics that has thrust it into the midst of the national debate—both here in the USA and in Britain. When the play was first produced in 2014, it was considered a witty, but a counterfactual, send-up of both the monarchy and Britain. The conventional wisdom was that it couldn’t happen there (or here). But, first with Brexit and, then, the Tsunami that crashed into America on November 8, 2016, many playgoers now see the play as a metaphor for the “Age of Trump,” in which a new President, aided and abetted by the malevolent likes of Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, seeks to deconstruct and smash the old order, the Constitution be damned. In Mike Bartlett’s London, something akin to our emerging notion of the “deep state” struck back to wrest the crown from Charles and return the country to normalcy. Fifty days on into the new Trump Administration, is the same thing happening in America?
King Charles III ends its run at the Harmon Theatre Arts on March 18. If you can’t get a ticket or enough of the British royals, download the superb Netflix production, “The Crown,” for a reasonably close approximation of the history of the royals from the abdication of Edward VIII through the resignation of Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his successor’s (Anthony Eden’s) Suez debacle. John Lithgow’s award-winning reincarnation as Churchill is not to be missed.
“The Crown” provides a flashback for King Charles III as it depicts a monarch, Elizabeth II, who comes to the throne believing she has some power, but finds out that it would be inappropriate to suggest to an old and doddering Prime Minister that it’s time to go. There is no power even, as she soon learns, to regulate her own domestic affairs as Elizabeth finds herself continuously overruled by various courtiers, cabinet ministers, Bishops and dowager queens who tell her that she can’t take her husband’s name, can’t take lodgings outside Buckingham Palace and can’t, as head of the church, sanction the marriage of her sister, Margaret, to a divorced commoner.
You have only five more days to see King Charles III during its current DC run. Not to worry, though, the American public have five more years to enjoy and dissect “The Crown” as it takes us through the last six decades of the second Elizabethan era, and many will eagerly be awaiting Netflix’s take on the Queen’s opinion of Donald Trump when she meets him during his proposed state visit to Britain, provided of course that he survives his current struggle with the Acela Corridor Establishment (sometimes referred to on this blog as “The Borg) who have furiously united to drive him from office.