Written by Mike Bartlett. Directed by Kevin Bennett. Produced by the Arts Club Theatre Company at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, October 25. Continues to November 19
“The queen is dead, long live the king…that’s me.”
These are fitting words for a prince-turned-king whose whole existence has been “a lingering for the throne”. In real life, the long-running macabre joke is that spite has been the sustaining factor in Queen Elizabeth II’s lengthy reign. That she’s punishing Prince Charles for bringing so much scandal to the royal family with his rocky marriage to Princess Diana, their various affairs and subsequent divorce in 1996, and her death a year later following a car chase by paparazzi.
In King Charles III, playwright Mike Bartlett imagines a not-too-distant future wherein Prince Charles (Ted Cole) finally has the crown within his grasp—only he isn’t quite sure what to do with it. When the new king receives a bill from the prime minister (Simon Webb) that will limit the freedom of the press, he refuses to sign it, eventually igniting total political upheaval. Kate (Katherine Gauthier) is thinly reimagined as a power-hungry seductress who wants the crown to pass to her husband, Prince William (Oliver Rice) while Prince Harry (Charlie Gallant) falls for Jess (Agnes Tong), a young art student who offers him hope of a “normal” life outside the palace.
Bartlett’s play is meant to evoke William Shakespeare, and it does so with some success, but the pacing of this production feels off and it’s hard to know if that’s a problem with the writing or with Kevin Bennett’s direction. At times, King Charles III feels laboriously slow. Bartlett has some good lines and dialogue, but not enough to sustain its three hours.
Of course, because it’s a Fakespearean Tragedy, there’s a ghost.
Ghost Diana (Lauren Bowler) appears separately to both Charles and William, and it’s frustrating to see her reduced even in death to the role of a loving prop validating men. Arguably, there’s a malicious edge to her validation, since she tells both of them that they are destined to be the “best king” and chaos ensues, but that’s not really how the scenes are staged. Her appearance feels exploitative, particularly since her death is invoked by the prime minister as a reason for Charles to sign the bill restricting press freedom.
The play is never quite as clever as it wants to be, despite there being some fascinating potential to explore in its themes: the culture of stoicism and its influence on toxic masculinity (Charles’s “softness” is repeatedly brought up and his emotions are often coded as feminine or weak); censorship, press, and people as brands; power and corruption. Like its depiction of the man himself, this King Charles III is fine but flawed, never quite living up to its potential.