By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
"My life has been a ling'ring for the throne." So says the man who was Prince Charles and is now King Charles III. Mike Bartlett's "future history" play, having transferred from London to Broadway, begins with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, Britain's longest reigning monarch, and ponders what comes next. The very future of the monarchy is called into question.
The succession to the throne may not be on most American minds but the issues of King Charles III extend far beyond to problems of government we can easily relate to: a contentious and incompetent Parliament and an out-of-control news media.
Charles (the superb Tim Piggot-Smith) is an idealist, a principled, bookish man who believes in doing what is right rather than what is expedient or crowd-pleasing, so the crisis begins with the first bill he is asked to sign as King. This Privacy Act would limit the powers of the press, which is far more hyena-like in England than in the U.S.. The trouble is that although the royal family has been the subject/victim of such journalism, Charles believes that to constrain a free press is to damage democracy, that only the press can hold governments accountable. He also knows that the press will not hold itself to his high standards of decency. His refusal to sign the bill creates a public crisis, with noisy protests and answering shows of military might.
Charles is surrounded by his sons, the charming, handsome Prince William (Oliver Chris) and his beautiful, rail-thin Kate (Lydia Wilson) who will turn out to be an unexpected Machiavellian power, acknowledging in a stunning soliloquy, that despite her Barbie-doll persona, there is feminist grit and cunning under the plastic surface. The younger son, bad-boy Prince Harry (Richard Goulding), is, unlike his big brother, a wild mess, discovering all he has been sheltered from: ordinary people and McDonald's burgers.
As the crisis grows, Charles becomes more bewildered and distraught, while the younger generation seems more ambitious and shallow.
Bartlett's play, written all in verse, is delivered by the cast with just enough ease to make the dialogue sound like human speech and yet just enough emphasis to point to the rhymes. There are winking references to Macbeth (the ghost of Diana prophesies the greatness of future kings) and Henry IV (the real-life Prince Harry must abjure his pretty Falstaff) and there are painful glimpses of Lear.
Rupert Goold's staging in a vast brick arena, moodily lit and accompanied by evocative live music, relies heavily and splendidly on pomp and circumstance, with lots of regalia, revealing just how theatrical royalty is, and how, ultimately, the show must go on.