King Charles III Reimagines Royal Family with Shakespearean Flair

Photo by David Cooper

King Charles III, Arts Club Productions, Playing at Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage until Nov. 19th.

The poster for this Arts Club production depicts a crown slipping comically down King Charles’ head. That image seems to say that Charles is a pea-brain or unfit to wear his predecessors’ crown or perhaps both. King Charles III is billed as “A Jovial Political Satire” so you might arrive expecting scathing parodies of the Royal Family. What you’ll find is a drama that is more Shakespeare than Saturday Night Live. Prince Harry isn’t only a red-headed baboon, Duchess Kate is photogenic but that’s a cloak for ambition, and King Charles is too self-aware to be dismissed as a simpleton; “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool,” as the Bard observed. Instead, he’s a quiet, indecisive man, forced to make a difficult decision. He might not be a fool, but the crown sits uneasily.

Mike Bartlett’s script, brought to life by Director Kevin Bennett in his Arts Club debut, imagines the Queen’s inevitable passing. Even for those of us on the farther-flung shores of her empire, Queen Elizabeth II is an institution unto herself. Dialogue reveals that Queen Elizabeth II ruled for 70 years, which situates us close to 2022. That’s getting into science fiction territory, but don’t expect Buckingham Palace on Mars. The story here is very much grounded in present-day anxieties about freedom of speech, democracy, and government overreach.

King Charles is a man who has spent his life waiting for his cue: “My life has been a ling’ring for the throne.” In a great performance by Ted Cole, Charles is portrayed as the sort to consult old books in the face of turmoil, even revolt. Like Hamlet, he is prone to indecision, and when he finally does act, from some inner conviction, it is often in a direction tragically misaligned with reality. Before he’s even properly crowned, Charles is expected to reign. This means speaking to the press, a duty he shyly avoids. It also means signing bills passed by parliament, a stroke of the royal pen required to pass them into law.

When the Prime Minister (Simon Webb) presents Charles with a bill to “rein in” the press in the name of privacy, Charles faces a crisis of conscience. Yes, he agrees the press can be jackals, thinking here of Princess Diana, but to protect a bastion of democracy Charles refuses to sign. It’s hard to know what to make of this refusal. Is it a noble act of defiance in the face of incipient tyranny, hubris, or the act of an old man making the most of his last chance to cause trouble? Regardless, he has our sympathies as his refusal to play ball sets off a constitutional crisis, with an army tank parked on the palace lawn and an angry mob calling for an end to the monarchy.

It’s hard to believe that the real Prince Charles would be so naive as to veto a parliamentary bill within a few weeks of ascending to the throne or that he would rise to champion the freedom of the press over privacy. Indeed, he once remarked that the press had been “awkward, cantankerous, cynical, bloody-minded, at times intrusive, at times inaccurate and at times deeply unfair and harmful to individuals and to institutions”. Perhaps the play should have addressed the contents of the bill in more depth. But it’s not hard to imagine a government clamping down on free speech. Look at Turkey, Russia, and then look again, closer to home.

Meanwhile, Prince Harry (Charlie Gallant) is falling hard for a spirited art student, Jess (Agnes Tong), who habours far-left, possibly communist, leanings. She’s out to show the clueless prince what “real life” is like. If you can believe that Harry is a sweet, sheltered young rogue, you’ll find their young love endearing, especially when set against the backdrop of political machinations. On the other hand, if you have a hard time picturing Harry as Jasmine from Aladdin, shut up in a palace and denied the enjoyments of a humdrum life, you’ll be suppressing groans as Harry swoons over Burger King’s all-night menu. He’s got bigger secrets than 3 a.m. Whoppers.

While Charles frets about duty to country, the politicians make their moves. Christine Willes as Mrs. Stevens, the leader of the opposition Conservatives, was wonderfully duplicitous, contorting her “politician’s tongue” in mid-verse. Royals Will (Oliver Rice) and Kate (Katherine Gauthier) aren’t going to sit around while Charles spoils their inheritance. After years of posing for pictures with and without the Royal Bump, Kate is set to leverage public support. Will, bound by filial duty, isn’t so sure. Watching these two discuss their next moves alone in Windsor Palace makes for some of the play’s best moments. Kate’s pushy ambition will remind many of Lady Macbeth’s. (While Game of Thrones fans are likely to be reminded of a more sympathetic Margaery Tyrell).

If you are invested in the family life of the Royals and have a taste for Shakespearean drama told in verse, King Charles III will be a delight. If you are titillated by corridor scheming and political betrayal, you’ll enjoy this. And really, anyone who enjoys a good What If? story will find something substantial here, a story about duty, family, and an individual’s responsibility to stick to their convictions. In this uneasy time, who doesn’t wish for a king’s power to stand up and declare a royal “No”? Whether it would do any good is another question.