Let it be declared right from the start: Mike Bartlett’s, “King Charles III,” subtitled “A Future History Play,” is absolutely fabulous. So is its production by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, superbly directed by Gary Griffin, who has gathered a picture-perfect cast.
‘KING CHARLES III’ Highly recommended When: Through Jan. 15, 2017 Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier Tickets: $48 – $88 Info: http://www.chicagoshakes.com Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
And while the play could not be more British in both subject and spirit, it also serves as a fascinating complement to the current political scene right here at home. In fact, watching it, you might swear that while it had its premiere in London in the fall of 2014 (before the whole Brexit upheaval, and before Donald Trump’s entry into the presidential race), it could easily have been written yesterday.
A blistering, wildly imaginative, wholly entertaining look at the tension between elected government officials and the monarchy, and between ideals of free speech and the abuses of that principal by the media, the play also is as deeply personal as it is ideological, exploring the bonds between fathers and sons, mothers and sons, husbands and wives, and brothers. Best of all, it probes the complex psychological makeup of the man we all know as Prince Charles — suggesting how this man, who has been in a state of eternal waiting for his chance to wear the crown, might behave once he finally inherits it.
Of course when the talk is about kings of England, a guy by the name of Shakespeare must be invoked. And Bartlett, a whip-smart writer, pays full homage, crafting the sharpest, wittiest, most fluid play-in-verse imaginable — one that feels wholly colloquial, yet with a singular twist. (He also gives us a Shakespearean ghost.)
It all begins with a fittingly formal funeral as Queen Elizabeth II, clearly well past 90, is laid to rest, with her heir apparent, Prince Charles (Robert Bathurst, best known for his role on “Downton Abbey,” wonderfully obsessive, unpredictable and ultimately broken), standing stoically, framed by his two sons, Prince William (Jordan Dean), and Prince Harry (Alec Manley Wilson). Notably off-center are Charles’ second wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (Kate Skinner, royally frumpy), and William’s stylish young wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, better known as Kate Middleton (played with a neatly Machiavellian touch by Amanda Drinkall).
Almost immediately (even before his formal coronation) there is a return to business as usual as the casually arrogant Prime Minister Tristan Evans (deft work by Sean Fortunato) arrives at the palace to secure what he believes, as is traditional for the monarchy, the rubber stamping of a newly passed law. The law sets serious restrictions on freedom of the press, and is aimed at curbing the invasive activities of the paparazzi and social media. And given Charles’ history with all this, particularly the nature of the death of his first wife, Princess Diana (who appears as a ghost, and is played by Sara Chalcroft), you would expect him to sign it in a flash.
Instead, Charles defies tradition and the notion that the monarchy is the upholder of “stability and certainty” and should remain distanced from day-to-day politics. In the name of democracy he champions the idea that no restrictions on a free press should be permitted, and he proceeds to oppose the law at all costs, seeing it as the crucial first step in the forging of his legacy. The chaos that ensues — a dangerous rupture in the nation, as well as a profound tear in the royal family — turns out to be momentous on every level, although the details of all this should not be revealed here.
Much of the story turns on the shrewdly modern, ambitious, almost Lady Macbeth-like Kate, and the personalities of the two princes, whose mother left such a formidable mark on them. We know them well from the tabloids: William, the older brother with a more settled nature (in a fine, anguished portrayal by Dean), and Harry (ideally nailed by the ginger-haired Wilson), who yearns to be liberated from the whole royal “prison,” and very nearly goes off with Jess (a spot-on Rae Gray), an art student with radical politics and a social media past.
Scott Davis’ handsome set extends the architecture of the theater itself to suggest many locations. Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes capture the generational chasms. And the sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen summons just the right level of pomp and circumstance.
Overheard on the way out of the theater: “Do you think we could opt for an abdication in Washington before Inauguration Day?” Enough said.