‘King Charles III’
Through March 12
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F St., N.W.
Not long after the death of his ex-wife Princess Diana, Prince Charles had it leaked that he’d be “privately delighted” were his mother Queen Elizabeth II to step aside and give him the crown. Well, the Queen was not amused. The heir was duly scolded. And after apologizing he retreated to the wings while mother stayed center stage where she remains today.
In Mike Bartlett’s “King Charles III,” the British playwright muses on just what might happen when Charles does ascend to the throne. What might be a bit of fluff is in fact a thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining work employing the structure and language of a Shakespearean history play with all the drama, intrigue and comedy that entails. Timely, too, in light of power shifts here in Washington. Bartlett’s Olivier Award-winning play is now at Shakespeare Theatre Company in a first-class production faultlessly staged by David Muse on loan from Studio Theatre where he’s artistic director.
The Queen is dead and Prince Charles (Robert Joy) is poised to be made king. But before the coronation ceremony takes place, Charles finds himself at odds with Parliament and Prime Minister Evans (the excellent Ian Merrill Peakes) over a new bill that would limit the rights of the press in invading personal privacy. Ironically Charles who’s been burned so badly by Fleet Street over the years and despises the paparazzi who played a role in the death of his sons’ mother Princess Diana is against the bill.
Noble, tragic and slightly dotty at times, Charles digs in deeper, ultimately dissolving Parliament which leads to protests and all sorts of national dysfunction. Throughout this time, he retains the support of longtime advisor (Tim Getman) who persuades him to park a tank in front of the Palace and his assertive wife Camilla (Jeanne Paulsen) who stands strongly by her man, amusingly reminding him that that he is not alone.
But the younger generation understands what the people want. Swayable Prince William (Christopher McLinden) and his wife Kate (Allison Jean White), a clear-headed strategist who understands the value of good fashion and column inches, have different thoughts on the matter than Charles.
In Shakespearean fashion, there’s a romantic subplot involving callow Prince Harry (Harry Smith) and Jessica (Michelle Beck) a young art student and antimonarchist. After being introduced by posh Cootsy (Jefferson Farber) at a nightclub, the pair becomes inseparable. Jessica shows the prince a new world filled with protest, work and fun, prompting him to toy with the idea of giving up his title. In a wonderful scene, Prince Harry goes anonymously into the London night where he meets a kebab seller played wonderfully by Rafael Jordon with whom he speaks on love and life.
Of course this tale couldn’t be complete without Princess Diana (Chiara Motley). Here she’s more than a memory; she’s a black-veiled specter haunting the halls of Buckingham Palace (an imposing edifice designed by Daniel Ostling and strikingly lit by Lap Chi Chu). Here she plaintively wails and calls out enigmatic predications that both her late husband Charles and eldest son William are both destined become England’s greatest king.
Cast members bear a resemblance to the royals they play, in particular Motley as Diana and White as Kate, but especially Paulsen who from Row N center is a dead ringer for Camilla.
D.C. theatergoers were introduced to Bartlett’s play “Cock” (also directed by Muse) at Studio Theatre in the spring of 2014. That play follows the John, a youngish gay man who can’t decide whether to stay with what he knows — a stale relationship with another man — or pursue the new found joys of heterosexual bliss with a woman.
“King Charles III” marvelously portrays the Windsor family’s place in both history and pop culture. And though it sometimes feels otherwise, Queen Elizabeth will not live forever. And when she does go, the play may lose its poignancy and punch. But until then it’s a fabulous exercise in when and what ifs.