Thursday, November 24, 2016

Intriguing “King Charles III” at Seattle Rep

Robert Joy in King Charles III. Photo by Michael Doucett.
King Charles III
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through December 18, 2016

The new and much anticipated play at Seattle Rep is King Charles III and it has a very intriguing premise. We all know that Queen Elizabeth II will die, like we all will at some point. That’s not very startling, and her son, Prince Charles, has been on tap to be king for a long time. Playwright Mike Bartlett supposes what a newly inherited King Charles might be like, and chooses some very contemporary problems to fold into the fantasy.

As the pomp and ritual of the Queen’s burial is ending, the new King Charles is presented with a bill to sign from the British Parliament by the Prime Minister. But it happens that the bill fundamentally restricts freedom of Britian’s famously rowdy and incendiary press. As Prime Minister Evans (a suitably restrained Ian Merrial Peakes) explains it, it seeks to reasonably prevent invasions of privacy like tapping of royal cell phones and then leaking photos and emails to the public (which we heard really happened in 2011).

You might think that King Charles would be heartily in favor of the bill, which has already been passed by majorities in the Parliament and lacks only what is considered a perfunctory royal signature. Instead, King Charles, as the real life bookworm Prince and thoughtful historian seems to be, decides that his signature should not be a formality and he will not sign the bill!

What a constitional crisis! It puts the King on the side of an unfettered press, even to his own disadvantage. It upends tens or hundreds of years of settled British protocol. Does the King have the right to disrupt a democratically passed bill because he disagrees with it? If the King has no such veto power, then should his signature even be asked for?

Complications include the minority leader of  Parliament (Bradford Farwell), who will say one thing in private to the King (supporting the King not signing the bill) and maintain a public position of saying the King must allow Parliament to rule without interference. Due to unrest by the public, the King establishes a real militaristic presence around the palace in place of the ceremonial Palace Guard.

After November 8th… a date that may well go down in our country’s history as more important than most Election Days, this particular play resonates so much more than it might have a month or more beforehand. Who wields power and how is now much more on our minds.

The concept of the play is wonderful for a large portion of the first act – which is a long one. The execution of the script is admirable because it translates very modern thought and action into Shakespearian cadence. Bartlett uses iambic pentameter, the common Shakespeare poetic meter (five “beats” per measure – ba bum ba bum ba bum ba bum ba bum) and also uses Jacobian-styled word switches (“What is it, husband, troubles you like this?”). Bartlett wants you to think of this as a Shakespearian historical play.

There is fun to be had if you follow even a small amount of British royal exploits. Humor is laced through in both small and larger ways, which enlivens the show.

Prince Harry (Harry Smith) is portrayed as not very serious and wishing to give up royal life all together after meeting an intellectually stimulating commoner (Michelle Beck). Cast members are made to look very much like the real deal, and Prince William (Christopher McLinden), Princess Kate (Allison Jean White), Camilla (Jeanne Paulsen), and Chiara Motley as Ghostly Princess Diana look astonishingly realistic.

Robert Joy does not do a caricature of Prince/King Charles, but suggests his manner well. He is effective as the troubled royal.

However, the clever idea begins to run out of steam towards the end of the first act and falls pretty completely apart in Act Two. Prince William, led by a conniving Kate, double-crosses his father in order to get crowned in his place and restore the established order.  While it might be smart to portray Kate as more than a pretty face, here she comes off as too much a shrew, and pretty heartless, as well.

The production is very handsome. Staged by David Muse, the set by Daniel Ostling is a gorgeous English castle foyer with huge statutes in stained-glass window frames. The music by Mark Bennett is a fun mix of both classically royal style and current pop.

This co-production the Seattle Rep, American Conservatory Theatre (San Francisco) and The Shakespeare Theatre (Washington, D.C.) continues to D.C. as the third leg of its journey. The San Francisco stand was September into October. It’s a smart way to leverage an expensive show. The smaller roles are played by local actors from each location.

While acknowledging the unraveling of the script by the end, there is still a lot to enjoy about the production. The cast is excellent, the trappings do it justice and there is much catalyzed in the concept that Bartlett proposes. Politics is an uneasy business no matter which side of the Pond you’re on these days.

For more information, go to or call 206-443-2222.