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Chicago Shakespeare’s King Charles III owes less to the Bard than to Sophocles

A political dinosaur makes a last stand in Mike Bartlett’s drama.

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Barring divine intervention, the 90-year-old reigning sovereign of the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth II, will eventually die, and her eldest son, Prince Charles (currently 68), will ascend the throne—assuming, of course, that he's not also dead by then, which would be just his luck. In King Charles III, Brit playwright Mike Bartlett imagines a less than orderly succession.

In fact, it's a cutthroat and ludicrous piece of business. Charles has yet to be officially crowned when his prime minister, the right fictitious Tristan Evans, asks him to sign a measure already passed by the House of Commons, stunting the power of the press. The monarchy is so degraded that Charles's signature is considered a formality—a ceremonial nod to an ancient institution. Much to everyone's surprise, however, Charles resists, standing on (a) the moral argument that a free press is essential to democracy and (b) his three prerogatives as king: to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn. To everyone's further surprise, he won't back down. Though even his private love talk has been humiliatingly splashed all over the media (remember Tampongate?), Charles insists that Parliament reconsider the law.

Naturally, all hell breaks loose. No fan of royalty in the first place, Evans wants Charles's refusal overridden. Charles, meanwhile, figures out that he's got the power to dissolve Parliament if he wants. The opposition leader does his double-talking best to turn events his way. And other Windsors make their moves—especially Charles's daughter-in-law, Kate, the Lady Macbeth of the piece.

Macbeth isn't the only Shakespearian resonance here. Bartlett makes seriocomic allusions to Hamlet, King Lear, Henry IV, Part 2, and maybe The Winter's Tale as well. What's more, his language is pseudo-Elizabethan. But King Charles III owes less to the Bard than to Sophocles, as you can see if you catch the fine new Court Theatre production of Electra. Like the Mycenaean princess who won't let go of her father's murder, Bartlett's Charles upholds a higher law in the face of business as usual. His is the story of the political dinosaur's last stand.

Best known to American audiences as Sir Anthony Strallan from Downton Abbey, Robert Bathurst neatly embodies the dignified confusion of an honorable but crucially limited man who requires a hell of an awakening before he'll understand his place in the world. He's surrounded, in Gary Griffin's well-paced staging, by an army of Chicago's better actors. Amanda Drinkall, in particular, exudes a smooth ferocity, making herself at home in the rather retrograde role of manipulative Kate. David Lively's opposition leader is like one of those rubber stress relievers: however hard you squeeze him, he pops back into shape. Jonathan Weir is a decorous hoot as Charles's personal secretary.  v

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