Sunday, November 20, 2016

Play: Totally Modern Shakespeare

King Charles III by Mike Bartlett, Directed by David Muse, through 18 December, Seattle Repertory Theatre.

A very political play, set in an England of the very near future, where Her Majesty Elizabeth II has passed on, and Charles, her greying son, is finally taking the throne. And the new King goes to loggerheads with the Parliament almost immediately over a measure that would restrict Freedom of the Press. The new king is against such a measure, even though it might get the Barons of Fleet Street off his and his family's collective backs, and refuses to provide the royal signature to make it a law (no Pocket Veto in England). The Prime Minister denies that the Crown has the right to withhold its signature. And we are off to the races.

Interesting enough, but the play is written in blank verse. Which is to say iambic pentameter. Which is to say it is written in that lyrical fashion in which Shakespeare himself wrote. Which means the result feels like something off the stage of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, one of the histories, transplanted into the present say, with rhyming couplets to end a scene that use the words "cell phone".

And much to my surprise, the entire thing works. Shakespeare stalks the halls of Buckingham Palace, where Young Prince Harry evokes Young Prince Hal, even as he fears his fate is to be Falstaff, Kate Middleton is possessed by the spirit of Lady MacBeath, and yes, a ghost of a dead royal shows up. (Or maybe two. I wrote an essay back in college about whether the ghost of Hamlet was singular or plural - it applies here as well). The language among the Brit elites and the people flows naturally for all its poetic, non-rhyming nature.

Robert Joy, as the new King, sketches out a man unprepared, even at this point, to fully emerge from his parent's shadow and take command. And when he takes command, he does so armed with traditions of the past and a willingness to dig his heels in. Ian Merrill Peakes as the Prime Minister is surprised and frustrated by a suddenly intractable monarch, and Bradford Farwell makes for an opposition leader that could have been out of an old episode of Yes, Minister.

Of the family, Christopher McLinden makes a William that is his father's son, and Allison Jean White a bright-eyed, very aware Kate Middleton. Harry Smith as bad-boy Prince Harry engages in a Prince and pauper romance with Jessica (Michelle Beck), a revolutionary with a soft spot, capable of serving as a companion on Doctor Who. The play requires that Prince Harry hasn't encountered a lot of normal life, but that is a small concession for the romance, which will not end well.

The stage is set like Westminster Abbey, with stone ancestors pressing down on the action below. The centuries of monarchy (constitutional and otherwise) weighs heavy on the heads of those who are carrying it forward. Each side believes they are right, but things quickly get out of hand and a tank is parked at Buckingham Palace while King Charles by turns stands resolute and wishes for an easier task so soon in his rule.

In many ways the play was a wondrous cathartic experience, given the recent developments in these parts. The play was written pre-Brexit, but has the feeling of the continual stress and pull of ruler, oligarchy, and people rings true as it moves from the death of one leader to the coronation of another. It does evoke the LBJ play, All the Way, with its protagonist wanting to be validated, to be proven he is worthy for the position he holds. But unlike LBJ, the Charles is this play does not have the right tools and temperament to succeed.

Highly recommended. More later,