King Charles III

November 5, 2016

January 15, 2017

at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

by Mike Bartlett
directed by Gary Griffin

A Scholar's Perspective

by Stuart Sherman

Families, writes the terrific critic Felicity Rosslyn, are the one phenomenon “on which we are all experts.” That’s why plays so often center on them. For all of us, the familial is so familiar—with its tussles, terrors, tenderness—that the playwright can start from there and take us anywhere.

In King Charles III, Mike Bartlett shows us a family we both know and don’t know: the British Royals. And in the zone between our copious, almost ineluctable knowing (all that coverage, all that publicity, all that gossip) and our not knowing (this family’s famous self-containment, its aspirationally tight but intermittently unraveling control of its narratives), Bartlett has concocted something wonderful.

Wonderful in part because it is so Shakespearean. Shakespeare’s core trick, in his history plays and elsewhere, derives from his understanding of how inextricably the shape of family and the fate of country can be enmeshed. In crookback Richard’s feelings toward his parents and his brothers, in Prince Hal’s toward his father, in Hamlet’s toward his father, mother and uncle, can lie the destiny, for generations, of all the families who make up the nation. Within our own more ordinary families, the tensions often feel epic, cataclysmic overwhelming. Shakespeare’s plays often lend credence to that commonplace emotional conviction. They refigure it as historic truth.

In King Charles, Bartlett plays a comparable game up close. We are after all contemporaries of these royal figures; we’ve each absorbed, whether deliberately or not, some sense of the complex crossplay at work among the aging Prince, his dead Princess, his half-orphaned heirs, their stoic stepmother and their varied consorts: William’s wife; Harry’s girlfriends. Bartlett offers us, as Shakespeare offered his first audiences, the tantalizing pleasures of an unveiling—the sense that we are witnessing, as spectators, scenes of family life about which till now we could only speculate.

Bartlett’s game seems differently timed, as signaled by the quietly surprising Roman numeral by the show’s title, and in the subtitle that has sometimes followed that III: “A Future History Play.” Shakespeare wrote almost invariably of the past; in his time it was effectually illegal to represent present royalty on the stage. Bartlett, by contrast, begins with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-ruling monarch in England’s history. What we watch, then, is not the now, but an indefinite, perhaps imminent next. By this trick of timing, Bartlett playfully compounds the sense of uncertainty intrinsic to celebrity in general. We have long guessed at who these people are, what they’re like. We’re now invited to guess at what may happen to them, what they may do with and to each other.

In truth, though, Bartlett’s and Shakespeare’s time games overlap. Both playwrights orchestrate for their audiences a kind of time travel: where Bartlett projects the present into the near(ish) future, Shakespeare liked to palimpsest the past onto the pressing present. But Bartlett finds one further way to traffic in time’s suppleness: he builds the play around new shifts in media, which produce new shifts in timing, from the daily newspaper to the instantaneous text or Tweet. The plot pivots on a question about the press: should the government, in order to protect its citizens’ privacy, restrict the freedom of the media to purvey communications originally private or photographs clandestinely captured—hacked phone texts of a teenaged murder victim; scandalous photos of a private party? The Prime Minister and Parliament say yes; King Charles, despite the press’s lifelong incursions into his private life (amorous phone calls included), says no. Soon enough, the dispute opens new fault lines within the Royal Family.

As well it might. Even in ordinary families these days, the rapidfire permutations of our media can function as a kind of time travel: children and grandchildren, ever literate in the chimeric operations of the latest apps, can strike their more bewildered forebears as living already in some future epoch, and on another planet. By setting his whole play to the iambic music of Shakespearean verse, Bartlett contrives to stretch this sense of time travel across centuries, as we hear the characters discuss the newest technologies in the oldest English rhythms we know.

What’s at stake, Bartlett implies throughout, is our human knowledge, of ourselves and others. At one point in Richard II, the Shakespeare play from which Bartlett took his fullest template, the titular king is asked whether he is willing to resign his crown, and answers in words of agonized ambivalence: “Ay, no. No, ay.” On the page those syllables read merely as oscillating yeas and nays. But on the stage, they sound out another, darker possibility: “ I know no I.” I no longer know myself.

Bartlett echoes this dark possibility in his play’s whole design. King Charles, his younger son Prince Harry, and Harry’s girlfriend Jess, victims of the media, strive mightily and precariously to know themselves. (“What am I?” Charles asks repeatedly; his several soliloquies track his efforts to find out.) Kate and William (her at times eager, at times reluctant, pupil), masters of the new media, seek instead by ingenious means to promote themselves. From the contrast between self-knowledge and self-promotion, Bartlett weaves the play’s key struggle. Both in families and in a wider world ever more imbued with morphing media and novel tactics for deploying them, “I know no I” may prove the most haunting, and most accurate, proposition of all.


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