As always, Shakespeare must have the first word. And so, consider this observation from his play “Henry IV, Part 2”: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” which is spoken by the ailing and exhausted king of the title who years earlier seized the throne from the sad, ill-equipped Richard II, and then had him murdered.
‘KING CHARLES III’
When: Through Jan. 15, 2017
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier
Tickets: $48 – $88
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
These days, the line of succession to the British throne is clear, uncontested and non-violent. But the reign of Queen Elizabeth II — the longest of any British monarch (and the most enduring of any female head of state in world history) — will come to an end at some point, even if she remains amazingly vibrant at the age of 90. And, after a lifetime of waiting in the wings, her son, Prince Charles, will become King Charles III, with his second wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, at his side, and his sons, William (married to the independent-minded Kate Middleton), and Harry (the “bad boy”), still grabbing headlines.
As inevitable as all this might be, speculating on what comes in the wake of the death of your beloved queen is not exactly polite. But that is precisely where British playwright Mike Bartlett begins in his 2015 Olivier Award-winning “King Charles III,” subtitled “A Future History Play.” Written primarily in blank verse, the audacious drama, already seen in London and on Broadway, is receiving its local debut at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Gary Griffin directs a cast led by Robert Bathurst, the actor best known on this side of the pond for his role as Sir Anthony Strallan, the middle-aged suitor who left Lady Edith at the altar in “Downton Abbey.”
At the crux of Bartlett’s play is the new King Charles’ response to a bill, already passed by Parliament, that would limit the rights of the press in invading personal privacy. He opposes the legislation — most surprising given the way his whole family, and particularly his first wife, Princess Diana, was pursued by the paparazzi. Yet he believes a principle is at stake, and his defense of that principal becomes an obsession.
What follows are interviews with Bartlett (via email) and Bathurst (via phone).
Q.You are too young (36) to have really been aware of the whole Charles/Diana/Camilla scandal when it was unfolding. So when did you become intrigued by it, and by the whole 21st century royal family situation?
A. Actually I was about 12 or 13 when Charles and Diana got divorced and I remember being very aware of it all. I don’t think you could avoid it really, at the time. It was in every paper. Even then I was less intrigued by the gossip and the scandal itself (it seemed to me little different to the sort of thing that happened in many families) as in the huge attention it garnered. I’ve been fascinated for a long time with why the royal family holds such a central place in the British consciousness.
Q: Quite a while ago I read a piece (not sure where) that said while Queen Elizabeth is quite remarkable, and has led with dignity, she also emasculated her son by not stepping down and letting him take hold of the throne by the time he reached middle age. Do you agree?
A.It would be interesting to know where you read that. I would be surprised if that were a British perspective. I don’t think I’ve met anyone in Britain who takes seriously the idea that the queen could “step down.” Abdication has only ever happened once, and the betrayal British people felt at the time – my grandmothers’ generation – are strangely still felt now. The Queen would never step down, and Charles would never have expected her to. Of course this taboo of handing over power early to the next generation is one of the things that drives my play.
Q.Have you ever met Prince Charles or any of the royal family? Have any of them seen this play?
A.No, I’ve never met them. I don’t think protocol would allow them to see the play. They couldn’t be seen to have an opinion. Although we’re currently in the process of filming it for the BBC and PBS so perhaps they’ll get to see it that way.
Q. Did you want to be true to the person you believe the real Charles to be? And who is that man in your view? Do you think he ever wanted to be king, or would he have preferred to be an academic or head of some foundation? Is he decent but essentially boring? Is he tragic in some way?
A. Yes, I wanted to be true to him, and that involves not judging him. I don’t think anyone is boring actually if you ask the right questions and look at them the right way. But least of all Charles. I think what’s fascinating is that he has a radical heart within the most conservative institution one can imagine. So he often loves to support progressive causes (the fight against climate change, Tibet liberation) while at the same time clearly benefiting from a regressive institution. He’s clever enough to understand that contradiction, and clearly he’s a great thinker. I suspect that’s what makes him a good figure to be a Shakespearean hero — his interior conflicts.
Q. Kate seems to be the member of the royal family with the greatest sense of how to function in her role, while also remaining totally modern. What do you think of her?
A. She seems clever and aware of what she’s gotten into. The main aspect of her approach that interests me, particularly in the play, is the awareness of how important the image, the look, the photo-shoot is – clothes, hair expression, physical appearance. She knows that most people engage with the royals through a silent image, so that had to speak for them.
Q. Do you think the whole “Brexit” matter will newly strengthen the need for “a royal family,” if only because the monarchy still seems able to generate tourism and a sense of identity?
A. Possibly. But the royal family themselves are quite outward looking and international. They also have a good understanding of the economic needs of the country. Who knows, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were disappointed we voted to leave. They certainly would disapprove of the divisive tone of the campaign.
Q. What do you think Shakespeare would think of the current state of the crown? Would he laugh, mourn or just see it as the perfect continuum?
A. I think he would be surprised it had survived for so long and remained so similar.
In a phone chat with Robert Bathurst,he discussed the real Prince Charles, as well as his portrayal of him in “King Charles III”:
Q. Do you think Prince Charles (now 67) is bitter in some way about having to wait so long to become king?
A. No I don’t. I think he has created his own job, and is far more effective as king-in-waiting than he could be as king. As the monarch you are supposed to be marvelous to all, but Charles is someone who is not afraid to air his opinions, and, in the process, to annoy a lot of people. He has been able to lobby on behalf of various causes, from climate change to endangered species, and to speak frankly about everything from art and architecture to the over-fishing of the oceans, including Japanese whaling. And I think, as much as anyone, he is able to get the ear of whoever is the prime minister.
Q. What was the appeal of Mike Bartlett’s play for you?
A. There have been so many depictions of the royal family, and so much surmising about their personal relationships over the years. And with bio pics you have a certain responsibility to get to the truth. But this play looks at the future, so it’s open season. Like most people, my knowledge of Charles has been picked up over the years, and while I’ve never met him I’ve known people who have come across him. As I understand it, he can be very friendly and approachable, but he does have a shut-off point – a matter of self-preservation – and he has very good sycophantic radar. Also, I’m of the school that says if it’s not on the page it won’t get through to an audience, and this play certainly gets through. I’m not doing an impression of the man – his voice or his physical ticks, like the way he fiddles with his cufflinks, rubs his upper lip, or puts his left hand in his pocket.
Q. How has your appearance in “Downton Abbey” affected your career?
A: I came to recognition rather late in my career, but in Britain I’d had a very successful five-year run in a TV show called “Cold Feet,” which has since been revived, and people do stop me on the street now to talk about “Downton Abbey.” The way it all works these days is that you go on the telly so you can get big roles in the theater. So when I head that Gary [Griffin] was coming to London to audition English actors to play Charles I was excited. I had seen the London production and was envious of Tim Pigott-Smith, and thought: I would love to have the chance to play with this language. Mike Bartlett’s use of verse makes everything so immediate and clear, and ultimately the play is just a wonderfully funny family drama.
Q. What is your own feeling about the monarchy?
A. My father was in World War II, and he loved the royals. For the younger generation it’s just something we all take for granted. It’s part of how we govern, and serves as a sort of checks and balances mechanism.
Q. What would Shakespeare say about the current royal family?
A. He’d probably say: “Well, at least they’re not all killing each other.”