King Charles III
at Chicago Shakespeare Theater
by Mike Bartlett
directed by Gary Griffin
at Chicago Shakespeare Theater
by Mike Bartlett
directed by Gary Griffin
Q. Gary, how did you first experience this play—and what were your first impressions?
I hadn’t read the play when I went to see the New York production and quite honestly, before I encountered it, I was suspicious of the piece. To me, it sounded like it could be one of those satirical 'tabloid plays.' But ten minutes into the show, it so was clearly not that. What the conflict is at any given moment is absolutely clear. The drives of the characters are clear, the stakes are clear, and there’s a forward-driving rhythm throughout. It’s simply one of the best written plays I‘ve worked on in a long time. New plays are hard and this one is just so taut.
Q. Talk about how we first meet these characters and the world that the playwright, Mike Bartlett, establishes.
The play begins in the moments after the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, and Charles finds himself catapulted into this new role. A period of three months follows before his coronation. Immediately he challenges a bill already passed by both houses of Parliament that, traditionally, the Monarchy would simply signs off on. But he refuses--and that begins a firestorm. What is this shift in power now that they're no longer functioning in the way that they’ve functioned for the sixty-plus years of his mother’s reign?
Q. The future of the British Monarchy clearly fascinates Bartlett.
People are always speculating about the Monarchy’s survival after Elizabeth’s death, and Bartlett’s play takes that question head on. He had a big idea about the British Monarchy, about Elizabeth’s reign and about the future of the institution itself. His choice to create the character of Charles and identify a cause that could threaten the future stability of England’s balance of power is fascinating.
People anticipate that Charles will be more involved than was his mother. He’s always been a controversial and somewhat confusing figure. He’s been far more involved in political and social issues than his mother. He writes letters full of his opinions on various topics to government ministers, and he lobbies for causes he believes in. He’s not been one to sit around doing nothing as he waits. Seeing the shift in the world’s map, he has been learning Arabic so that he can communicate with these people and their monarchs. This is someone who's progressively thinking about who he will one day be. I think if you pressed Charles, he perhaps accepts that ancient doctrine of divine right with something like 75% of his self. But you get the sense that William will not be a king believing himself to be God-anointed. That's a huge shift in thought. The Queen has always functioned with this belief at her core.
I love the moment when Jess, Harry's new girlfriend, first walks into the palace and exclaims, "This is all still here!" And you certainly can understand her incredulity. But at the same time, if you've ever seen the horses parade down the Mall, it's magical, it's a fairy tale still. I think that's part of what fascinates us so about them. But they’re also a family. I keep coming back to that. The president, yes, has a family, but we don't think of the presidency as a family first. But the royalty is a family. They're not at all like us, and yet they're very much like us—and we experience that duality throughout this play, that family dynamic remains a powerful undertow. I'm one of two brothers, and there are things in their relationship that I just get. Being a story about both the very personal and the grand scale of politics, this play is very “Shakespearean”—though one of the things Mike [Bartlett] said when we talked was, "Be very careful with the Shakespeare allusions. Just let them be there. You don't want the audience just going, 'I get it!'" And he’s right.
Q: Given this family’s fraught relationship with the press over much of Charles’s adult life, it’s interesting that Bartlett chooses a bill suppressing the freedom of the press for the new king to reject.
Yes, it’s a very potent and dark relationship with London’s press. And in this play, it seems to me that Charles cares more about his relationship with the press than with Parliament. First thing out of the gate, I think he’s saying to them, "We don't have a battle, you know, as horrible as you have been to me. I believe this bill is not reflective of a good democratic society and I am opposed to it." I think that's a message he wants to send, powerfully, perhaps assuming that, if he limits the press, they’re going to present a bigger problem. I don’t honestly know if this is supported in the text, but it gives Charles a smarter motive than just wanting to challenge a bill.
Q: What do you see as the major conflicts in this play?
I think it centers on the power structure of Parliament and the Monarchy. How does Charles start his mission given how long he has been in waiting? And how aware is he of his public image? In the beginning scenes you get the sense that he’s not quite prepared for what’s happening, and there seems to be nobody who understands his dilemma. He probably underestimates the pushback he’s going to get from the Prime Minister. I think Evans brings into those initial meetings what is really a prejudiced view of Charles that the new king both senses and challenges. In one sense, they each view the other’s potential compromise as not particularly challenging, but immediately what they’re all about as human beings is at stake.
There’s the view of service that run deeps in the family, and then there are people like Kate, with the outsider view. It’s the women—Camilla, Kate and Jess—who are all challenging the notion of service versus personal. I think that’s a very important conflict in the play, and I love that it’s women. They’re three very cool, interesting women.
Q. Their roles seem so pivotal to this story that Bartlett creates.
There are three love stories in this show and they hugely affect the personal, intimate impact of what happens in this story. I think these three stories really resonate in the play’s fabric: it's not simply a bunch of political posturing. Camilla, I think, is a very sympathetic character here. That love story began when they were young and it was denied them; both had separate marriages and they came back to one another. That devotion reflects a lot about Charles. And then Harry is falling for a commoner who is not approved by his brother. But, much like his father, that's his person and he's fighting for that love story. William and Kate’s is the play’s third love story, but Bartlett’s Kate has some very dark echoes and has been compared to Lady Macbeth. But she acts out of love for her husband, and with an understanding that it is a new world and that he must reflect the new way of seeing the monarchy. Americans have a softer view of Kate than the Brits—she rejected William and he had to really fight to convince her to marry him. The real Kate has an independent current to her, so that Bartlett’s portrayal is not out of line with what some think of her already. All the characters have powerful agendas that they believe strongly in. And no one knows what to do at this point! No one knows how to handle the monarchy after Elizabeth’s death. There aren't villains in this story, and I don’t know if anybody really “wins.” Harry sides with his family and drops his relationship with this girl he really loves. I think William and Kate’s marriage is shattered because I don’t think he likes who she has become. I think the ending is heartbreaking.
Q. It’s not just “the Royals” in this play who speak to the current state of affairs.
One of my favorite scenes in the play is Harry’s conversation late at night on the street with a kebab vendor, who's impassioned and articulate about the state of the monarchy. He shares a perspective that Harry couldn't possibly have. That unlikely exchange activates Harry to go fight for his love. It's an incredible scene. There's a much larger canvas that's explored through this play beyond the royal family, and Bartlett gives a voice to many characters who live outside their sphere.
Q. Can you talk about the production’s environment and the world that you and Set Designer Scott Davis are discussing?
As we began to explore the environment of our Courtyard Theater, Scott and I started to focus on the dominance of that rectangle created naturally by the thrust stage. Westminster Abbey and Parliament are both spaces defined by their rectangular shapes. And so we began to think about how our space could evoke Parliament in a way that you can't in a proscenium theater. Here, you can place the audience inside the world of the play. I love how behavior, for me, feels more real on the thrust stage because you're not required to have everyone looking out the same window; you can build relationship dynamics more strongly. And like a Shakespeare history, Mike Bartlett includes both very public scenes and intensely intimate scenes, where you're privileged to hear very private conversations. We tried to use what is both the scope of our space and its intimacy in thinking about this world. I talk a lot about the swirl of this play: as the play escalates, it starts to really spin, and I think we can evoke that here. There's a cinematic fluidity to the piece that demands speed from one scene to the next.
Q: What have been your conversations with Costume Designer Mara Blumenfeld?
One of the reasons I love working with Mara is that she’s so good at finding the essence of an iconic figure. One thing that's obviously different in a play like this is that you have the real people to look at, and we've been looking a lot at what they wear. The play’s opening moments have been a topic of much discussion, trying to figure out what each of these characters would now wear to a funeral, based on what they’ve worn to past funerals. But their status was different then, and we're trying to make sure we're absolutely respectful and accurate about what they would wear now, given their new titles. You've got to leave that first scene landed in the world and believing it.
Q. Do you think audiences need prior knowledge—of the Royal Family, or of the structure of British government perhaps—to appreciate this story?
It's such a strong play that, no, I don't think it depends on any prior knowledge. I hope that, within ten minutes, you're just into it, and you've gotten past the notion that it's these people—and now you're thinking about what does a family do? We’ve got to have a nod to the real people; I think that’s an audience’s way in. But I don’t want to ask the audience to believe in that person as the real guy, but rather as a human being in that person’s dilemma. That’s a big difference.
Q. How does verse work in this play? In an interview with Bartlett that’s posted online, he talks about always having wanted to write a play in blank verse, but not feeling like he had the right story—until this one came along.
As in Shakespeare, when you’re in verse in this play, it’s usually at moments of heightened, dramatic tension. Because it’s not natural, it’s poetic realism. When you're in verse, the stakes at that moment are extremely high, and you have to make your case at that heightened level. For me, the verse makes everything clearer. And because it's contemporary language in this play, there aren't archaic words that people have to get used to, and the verse comes right at you. In auditions when people handled the verse extremely well, it was all so clear and wonderful to watch. Rhythmically and dramatically, Bartlett’s play feels like Shakespeare: the scenes start high, and they’re taut, with people entering and exiting, just as they do in Shakespeare.
Q: What do you hope that the audience takes away with then?
How really tenuous all forms of government and order are. This is what we would think is one of the strongest, most enduring institutions in the world and yet look how fast it could become chaotic.