Chicago Theatre Review
King Charles III – Chicago Shakespeare Theatre
It’s been quite a few years since playwright William Shakespeare wrote his histories, telling the stormy tales of Britain’s monarchy. In 2014 English playwright and screenwriter Mike Bartlett created a play in the style and subject matter of the Bard’s most regal dramas. His “new history” imagines the lives of many familiar figures at Buckingham Palace, in the near future, upon the death of Queen Elizabeth II. She’s long been the figurehead of the Empire and has ruled as the God-anointed Monarch of Great Britain for over 60 years. But in this creative and majestic play, Bartlett imagines what startling changes might possibly occur as Elizabeth’s son, Prince Charles, ascends the throne. And today’s audiences will especially find the kinds of governmental conflicts in this play to be very timely.
The drama opens in Westminster Abbey at the funeral and interment of Queen Elizabeth II. The Royal Family is anticipating how they will greet their people for the first time since the Monarch has passed. Present are Prince Charles and Camilla, the younger Princes, Harry and William, as well as Kate Middleton. In the days that follow, Charles begins his weekly meetings with Tristan Evans, the fictitious Prime Minister, during which they discuss a bill that’s already been passed by both the Houses of Lords and Commons. It simply awaits the King’s routine signature to make it official. Fearing that this new bill, which would regulate what the British press would be able to cover and report to the public, would restrict their journalistic freedom, Charles has grave doubts about signing it into law. He requests certain alterations to the bill, but the Prime Minister refuses. Mark Stevens, the Leader of the Opposition, arrives and the conflict of power escalates.
Meanwhile, Prince Harry is bored and unhappy at being a member of the Royal Family. He heads out to a club where he meets and falls in love with Jessica Edwards, an antiestablishment young art student. She’s a republican who thinks that the monarchy is archaic and should just quietly fade away. She also believes that without the royal responsibility Harry would be a lot happier, as well. When Harry introduces Jess to his father, Charles accepts and welcomes his son’s love for this nonconforming commoner, seeing himself in the young Prince.
Between scenes of conflict and power struggle, both Charles and Prince William are visited by the ghost of Princess Diana, who predicts that each man will become “the greatest king of all.” With Camilla standing behind Charles and Kate maneuvering William to assert himself between the Parliament and Charles, tension rises to a very Shakespearean climax.
The drama originally burst onto the stage in 2014, later transferring to the West End the following year, where it earned both the Olivier and the Critic’s Circle Theatre Awards. The play eventually headed to Broadway in 2016. Here it was nominated for several Drama Desk and Tony Awards and became one of New York’s most talked-about plays of last season.
In Chicago, Gary Griffin has directed Mike Bartlett’s imaginative play with tremendous style and energy. His production emphasizes the real people behind the crown, so the audience sees them more than simply the Royals. We identify with these characters and come to feel their pain and conflict. We begin to understand what it means to be a member of the monarchy. Griffin also accentuates the humor in this play, far surpassing the New York production, which also seemed darker, more serious and stately.
This production, beautifully lit by Philip Rosenberg, is brighter and less gloomy. Scott Davis has designed a simple environment for these characters, although far more colorful and detailed than the original production. Davis’ scenic design is dominated by rectangular shapes, particularly a giant Union Jack flag that forms a protective canopy hovering high above the playing area. And Mara Blumenfeld has designed an array of beautifully tailored, contemporary fashions, all properly rich and royal, with appropriate wigs and makeup by Richard Jarvie, to complete the majestic look.
Making his US theatrical debut, handsome Robert Bathurst is brilliant as Charles. An accomplished English actor of stage and screen, Mr. Bathurst is most familiar to Americans as Sir Anthony Strallan on the BBC’s “Downton Abbey.” Commanding, humane and understated, yet harboring understandable self doubts, Bathurst creates a King Charles who’s as realistic and empathetic as anyone you might meet.
Jordan Dean, also debuting at CST, is a strong and charismatic Prince William. He’s particularly well-cast in this role, portraying a young man supportive of his father, but who ultimately surpasses him in strength and ambition. Much of his drive and gumption comes from the push and manipulation by Kate, his wife. Played by Amanda Drinkall, one of Chicago’s brightest and most versatile young talents, this brilliant actress brings to the role all the class, grace and a few surprises in the familiarly fashionable Duchess of Cambridge. Together these two actors create a passionate team sporting a power, with whom to be reckoned.
As Harry, the rebellious younger Prince, who only wishes to be a normal commoner, Alec Manley Wilson also makes his Chicago debut. Together with Bathurst as Charles, the two men parallel each other in many ways, each an empathetic character fighting his frustration with the duties expected of him. Wilson’s Harry wants someone who’ll listen to him, love him for who he really is, and not just because he’s the Prince, while Charles wants to rule as more than just “a plastic figure with no meaning.” Rae Gray creates a forceful, feisty, working class young woman in Jess, the girl who’s won Harry’s heart. Wrestling with some of her own personal demons, Jessica gives Harry more motivation to seek his independence, much as Kate prompts William to take action.
As Tristan Evans, the fictional Prime Minister, Chicago favorite Sean Fortunato portrays a man at odds with his King. He argues and debates with this Monarch, always keeping his anger in check. His character is complemented by familiar CST actor, David Lively, as a politically conniving Mark Stevens, the Leader of the Opposition. When with Charles, the character shrewdly says just what the King wants to hear; however privately, Stevens has his own agenda, far more in keeping with his party. Kate Skinner is the consummate Camilla Parker Bowles, Duchess of Cornwall and Charles’ second wife. She’s all style and push, a hard mixture of ambition and determination, continually reminding Charles that he’s not alone. And Jonathan Weir is excellent as the very opinionated James Reiss, Charles’ Press Secretary, who displays the required decorum and courteousness in public, while harboring his own private opinions about certain matters. Weir creates a humorously droll character in this role.
This inventive drama imagines the chaos that could take place upon the death of England’s popular Queen Elizabeth II. The play makes the Royal Family feel like real people, and not just figureheads. They’re individuals we can understand and care about. Mike Bartlett’s play, which is modeled upon Shakespeare’s dramatic histories, written in verse, containing theatrical soliloquies, ghosts and taut family conflicts; but the drama is contemporary and accessible, too. It also smacks of what most Americans are feeling following the recent election. This production’s also laced with unexpected humor amid its moving, dramatic story, particularly as directed by gifted Chicago and international director, Gary Griffin. His talented ensemble portrays both England’s kings and commoners, led by Robert Bathurst as Charles, the heir to the throne. It’s a majestic production of a glorious play that speaks strongly to the concerns of Americans today.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 5-January 15 by Chicago Shakespeare Theater in their Courtyard Theater venue on Navy Pier.
Tickets are available in person at the CST box office, by calling them at 312-595-5600 or by going to www.chicagoshakes.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com