by Mike Bartlett

King Charles III

MAR 17-APR 2
Ivy Tech Waldron Auditorium

H-T Review

British monarchy’s future in play in latest Cardinal production

By Matthew Waterman
March 21, 2017

A 2014 play in blank verse named after a British monarch – sounds anachronistic, does it not? Maybe so, but it’s no more anachronistic than the royal family itself now is, and playwright Mike Bartlett proves it’s a suitable concept for a contemporary hit.

“King Charles III” envisions the fallout after the death of the current queen, Elizabeth II. Bartlett has crafted a hypothetical future that is perhaps far-flung, but not fantastical.

Cardinal Stage Company is presenting the play in the auditorium of the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center. Director Randy White has staged it quite effectively in an alley configuration (a rectangular stage with audience members along the two sides). Mark Smith’s scenic design, heavy on metallic and glassy surfaces, reflects the play’s futuristic side rather than its classical side.

After Elizabeth’s passing, Charles ascends to the thorn with grand ambitions of being Britain’s greatest king. The hope is a bit strange considering the dearth of meaningful impact that the modern monarchy has on British politics. The king or queen is merely supposed to meet with various important persons and sign off on legislation as a formality – but there’s the rub.

King Charles knows that his mother, though technically vested with the power of authorizing new bills, never threatened to withhold her signature for any political reason. Yet there is a new bill coming out of parliament that Charles cannot bring himself to authorize. The bill, in light of recent media stories defaming people with falsehoods, seeks to restrict the freedom of the press.

King Charles sees the legislation as a grave threat to the integrity of Britain’s democracy. Before even his formal coronation, he informs Prime Minister Evans that he does not plan to sign it.

One things leads to another, and eventually Prime Minister Evans has no choice but to spearhead a bill abolishing the monarch’s ceremonial right to sign (or not sign) legislations. With the very existence of the monarchy hanging in the balance, King Charles takes his political overreach one step further: he dissolves Parliament.

Political chaos ensues, with protestors flooding the streets as Prince William and Kate Middleton scramble to resolve the crisis.

Chicago actor Charles Stransky stars as the title character, embodying at once the regality of his role and his character’s deficit of certitude in the face of a moral crisis.

An entertaining subplot is played out by Curtis Edward Jackson and Erica Bittner as Prince Harry and Jess, the slightly improper left-wing art student with whom Harry falls in love. Jackson and Bittner are a convincing pair, and we even feel some sympathy for Harry when he resolves to renounce his royal status and live a normal life with Jess (as hard as it is to shed a tear for a prince carrying over his fame and fortune).

Gerard Pauwels is remarkably believable as the British prime minster – so much so that I was tempted to check my program and make sure it wasn’t Gordon Brown himself up there (there’s a noticeable resemblance). Mike Price makes a cunning leader of the opposition, privately giving support to the king’s withholdings of authorization but saying otherwise in public.

The allusion to Shakespeare’s plays is not just in the title (many of Shakespeare’s plays were named for kings), but all throughout. As mentioned above, the play is in blank verse, as Shakespeare’s were. I can’t say I would have noticed that fact had I not read it beforehand, but it sure is an impressive feat on Bartlett’s part. Other devices famously employed by Shakespeare, such as haunting apparitions, as replicated here.

“King Charles III” is one of the last productions to be helmed by Cardinal Stage Company’s founding artistic director Randy White before he leaves the company, and this production exhibits the polished and efficient quality common to all of his work. The performances all fit together, the blocking utilizes every available space and the show has a unitary vision behind it.

The strength of the play rests on the difficulty of the moral question involved. The king’s intrusion into governance is clearly undemocratic, but then again, the bill to restrict press freedom is similarly undemocratic. It would be nice to dismiss Bartlett’s storyline as a fantasy, but who knows what can come to pass in today’s political climate?