By Andrea Braun
“King Charles III” by Mike Bartlett is set in the indeterminate future when Elizabeth, Queen of England, has died and Charles (Colin Nichols) is now, at last, King.
We meet him as he addresses the audience and is soon joined by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (Donna Postel); Prince William, Duke of Cambridge (Michael Bouchard); Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (Lexie Baker); and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex (Jeremy Goldmeier) immediately following the Queen’s funeral.
Harry begs off the rest of the ceremonies, as we might expect from what we know of pre-Meghan Harry; the rest remain to talk. And exactly here is where the play went off the rails for me, and it did not manage to get back on for nearly three hours.
I realize information that the audience may not know must be conveyed through the characters, but Catherine, of all people, cannot possibly be ignorant enough of protocol to think that Charles isn’t King until his coronation three months hence. “The Queen is dead. Long live the King,” etc. Nevertheless, Camilla goes into lecture mode and Catherine (aka Kate) just listens, putting in a word here and there.
There’s an easy fix for that as the action quickly shifts to a club where Harry’s mates introduce him to Jessica Edwards (Britteny Henry), a Republican, who might well NOT know how succession works.
Back to the castle. Once Camilla gets her tutorial out of the way, the family exits and Charles has his first meeting with Prime Minister Kristin Evans (Andra Harkins), and we quickly learn they are at odds over a bill putting some restrictions on freedom of the press that Parliament has passed and now only requires the King’s signature to take effect.
The Queen would have done her duty and signed. But Charles, determined to be his own man, believes no restrictions should be placed on the media. Now, is this about the issue or the true belief of man himself? PM Evans spends most of her time in a frustrated huff, demonstrating that by her decidedly perfunctory curtsies, and it is difficult to blame her, even if one agrees with Charles.
This contretemps between Charles and his government, the ones whose power, unlike his, is not mainly symbolic, furnishes the major plot of the story. Subplots include Charles’s own self-doubt, and his relationship with his wife.
Harry and Jess have a rocky road. They have fallen in love “just like Romeo and Juliet” —that is, quickly and irresponsibly, but their story creates another annoyance: She keeps saying that she’s breaking up with him, but then she’s baaack, every time!
There is the balancing act performed by MP Margaret Stevens (Patience Davis), Leader of the Opposition, to placate both the King and the PM, and the question of who should have the throne, as it has long been known that many subjects prefer William to Charles.
It doesn’t help that Diana, Princess of Wales (Hannah Pauluhn) drifts through a couple of times, telling both her husband and son individually that each will be “the greatest King England ever had.”
The ghost is only one of the many Shakespearian references and allusions sprinkled throughout its five acts. A few more of these include casting Kate as a Lady Macbeth and William her reluctant Lord. It has been called “a future history play,” as it is styled in much the same way as Shakespeare’s own. Blank verse is employed, with touches of prose and a soupcon of iambic pentameter. The King seems weak (“Henry VI,” “Hamlet”), given to the grand gesture when it is not in his best interests (“King Lear”).
Prince Harry is beset with self-doubt (Prince Hal) and he calls himself a “ginger joke.” Even a kabob seller reinforces the younger prince’s doubts representing the common people, worried about the future of Britain; and that when so much of it has been taken away, it really isn’t the country they recognize any more.
Of course, the difference between this play and Shakespeare’s is that we don’t know how this one will come out, so that suspense adds some interest. There is good work from several of the actors, but Nichols could be stronger. In attempting to capitalize on Charles’ perceived weakness, he becomes almost devoid of personality, and if that is a directorial choice, I don’t think it works. Nichols’ is, at least until the last act, a one-note performance. There are hints of “accents” that make one long for a dialect coach.
Donna Northcott is a talented veteran director, and there are certain aspects she handles well, especially moving the actors around the stage and scene changes that are gracefully choreographed.
The play does develop momentum in the last half hour or so, but then someone fluffs (another) line, and takes us right out of the scene. And there were just too many of those mistakes. Presumably they will be corrected during the run.
Robin Weatherall’s sound design is fun and appropriate—varying between classical selections to represent the older royals and rock and roll for the younger. Costumes aren’t always flattering, but they are interesting, particularly Harkins’, Henry’s, and Baker’s. But Davis’s character only gets one brown suit? S.H. Boygan’s set is simple with basic elements added and shifted as needed. He seems to have done a lot with a little.
Overall, I’d choose James Reiss (Dustin Allison), Press Adviser, as best in show. It’s not that he doesn’t make mistakes like nearly everyone else, but he has many balls in the air and handles them all with a sort of jittery style, and he’s funny. There is more humor in the text than is noticeable in performance.
Davis is excellent and Harkins, is properly strong in her portrayal of where the real power lies. The actors who play multiple parts—the aforementioned Pauluhn is very good as a TV producer, Michael B. Perkins and William Pendergast are fine in all their roles.
The only exception here is Jeff Lovell, who as the Speaker of the House and the Archbishop of Canterbury, needs to back off a bit, lest he remind us even more of Peter Cook in “The Princess Bride” than he already does..
I am aware of the awards and nominations “King Charles III” has received since its first mounting in 2014, but this production by St. Louis Shakespeare doesn’t make it clear why it has been so honored.
“King Charles III” opened Aug. 17 with weekend performances, and continues next week with a Thursday performance Aug. 23 at 7:30 p.m. Evenings are at 8 p.m. Aug. 24 and 25, and Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. Aug. 26 at the Ivory Theatre, 7620 Michigan Ave. Tickets are available through brownpapertickets.com.
Photos by Ron James