NEW YORK (AP) - The kingdom is uneasy. The monarch grows more isolated by the day. The ghost of a dead royal prowls the castle. Meanwhile, advisers plot the king’s downfall and the prince seems unsure what to do.
Shakespeare? Not quite. The king in question is the current Prince of Wales and the prince is his eldest son, William. The ghost is none other than Diana, who glides about and spouts unclear prophecies.
Playwright Mike Bartlett’s vibrant and thrilling “King Charles III” opened Sunday at the Music Box Theatre, borrowing much of The Bard’s style and symbols but looking to the near future. It crackles with intrigue and ideas.
Much like “Hamilton” uses hip-hop and R&B to retell the story of Alexander Hamilton, Bartlett borrows England’s greatest writer to frame a tale about what might happen when the current English queen dies.
Bartlett uses verse and iambic pentameter to spin his web, leaning on “Macbeth” and “Richard III” and “King Lear.” (Spotting the Shakespeare references might be a side joy here: Hey, was the kebab vendor a riff on the gravedigger in “Hamlet”?)
A splendid Tim Pigott-Smith reprises his role as King Charles III, which he played in London, leading it to a best new play win at the Olivier Awards. He fiddles with his cuffs like Charles and nervously turns his signet ring, but never falls into mimicry. His descent into madness is Lear-lite, and Pigott-Smith is up to the task.
The play opens with the death of Queen Elizabeth II and then Charles is sent the first Parliament bill to sign as king - a ceremonial custom, really - a bill restricting the freedom of the press. (Like a companion piece to last season’s “The Audience,” the play also highlights the meetings between monarch and prime minister).
But unlike his predecessor, Charles refuses to give royal assent to the bill and thereby ignites a constitutional storm that brings the country to the brink of civil war. It’s a decision of conscience, but it may bring down the monarchy.
“Without my voice and spirit, I am dust/This is not what I want, but what I must,” says the new king, who fears he’ll become “A weakling shadow of what went before.”
A secondary story concerns his second son, Harry (played by Richard Goulding), who falls in love with a republican art student and begs to be allowed to revoke his royal privileges and become a commoner. A secret visit to Burger King makes him giddy.
Rupert Goold, who directed Patrick Stewart in a memorable “Macbeth” a few years ago, keeps things so gripping that at one recent preview, audience members wouldn’t even cough during the final scenes. The show, in which the cast also sings choral music, ends with a perfectly appropriate song to send us home - Lorde’s “Royals.”
Anthony Calf is perfectly unctuous as the leader of the Conservatives and Adam James plays the liberal prime minister increasingly angered by the king’s meddling. Other strong performances are by Oliver Chris as a thoughtful Prince William and a superb Lydia Wilson as Kate, one royal here it is unwise to underestimate.
This play marks Bartlett’s Broadway debut - his play “Cock” played off-Broadway in 2013 - and it’s a thunderously good one. “King Charles III” is ingenuous, intelligent and intriguing. Forget the king: Long live the playwright!
Online: https://www.kingcharlesiiibroadway.co m
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