This season’s prestige British import, Mike Bartlett’s serio-comedy opens in the not-too-distant future, at Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral. Prince Charles, the monarchy’s longest-running heir apparent, finally is set to wear the crown, though the coronation is a few months off. “My life has been a lingering for the throne,” he confides to us. His long bated desire is packaged in a memorable turn of phrase delivered with pungent understatement by Tim Pigott-Smith, at the beginning of an absolutely breathtaking, even heartbreaking, portrayal of royal unraveling. Best known as the evil police captain Ronald Merrick in the 1984 public television series The Jewel In The Crown, Pigott-Smith has long trod the West End boards in new and classic works but is making a long-overdue and welcome return to Broadway (where he last appeared opposite Kevin Spacey in a 1999 revival of The Iceman Cometh).
So Charles and Camilla (Margot Leicester) have to cool their heels for a bit. Still, there is business to be done, including the Royal assent on bills passed by Parliament. One bit of legislation has Chuck irked: a law that will put restrictions on the free press in the wake of the hacking scandal that finished off the uber-tabloid News Of The World and almost brought down the House of Murdoch. You’d think the man who once wished himself a tampon as an expression of lust for his mistress, and who watched as his wife Princess Diana won the hearts and flashbulbs of an indulgent and insatiable press, would jump at this chance for legislative revenge. But it is Bartlett’s conceit that Charles, after stringent reflection, refuses to rubber stamp the bill, to the astonishment of the Prime Minister (Adam James) and the leader of the opposition (Tom Robertson). Their patronizing indulgence soon turns to fury as Charles stands his ground.
Meanwhile, Prince William and wife Kate (Oliver Chris and Lydia Wilson, deliciously unctuous, playing Goneril and Albany to Charles’s early-onset King Lear) have their eyes opened to the possible consequences of Charles’ intransigence. The smooth transition that will eventually place the crowns atop their photogenic heads seems suddenly under threat over this mutinous behavior. Harry (spiky ginger Richard Goulding) has taken up with a resistant commoner (simply spiky Tafline Steen), thumbing his nose at them all. At least for a time.
The Shakespeare comparisons are appropriate for several reasons: Not only does Bartlett (and his skillful director Rupert Goold) imagine a tale of serious shenanigans within Buckingham Palace; he does so with an ear finely tuned to a theme of the moment. And while King Charles III brims with timeliness, the play unfolds in iambic pentameter, the blank verse that Shakespeare employed to add weight and beauty to the narrative. Normal people don’t actually speak this way, but these are not normal people. By the end, Charles is fighting, unexpectedly, passionately and most poignantly, for his life. We’re never allowed to forget Charles’ flaws — his Act II showdown with William centered on life before and after Diana, is a sensational reminder (as well as testament to a cast equal to the very high bar set by the star). Similarly, Goulding’s change of heart echoes nothing so movingly as Prince Hal’s wrenching renunciation of Sir John Falstaff.
Pigott-Smith’s face betrays every flicker of emotion, from elation to determination and shocking defeat; his body the slowly hunching posture of a man whose dream is fast turning into nightmare. The actor will stay in your mind long after his crumpled, prone body has been consumed by the mob not outside, but within his rarefied circle.