King Charles III: It’s stylish but is it relevant?

The Arts Club is presenting Mike Bartlett's King Charles III at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage.

Costumer Christoper David Gauthier knows what he’s doing in King Charles III. (Photo by David Cooper)

Who gives a toss?

In Mike Bartlett’s 2014 script, Queen Elizabeth II has just died and Charles has become King, although his coronation is a few months off. In one of his first acts as monarch, he refuses to give his assent to a bill that would restrict the freedom of the press, although that bill has been passed by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Before long, there are riots in the streets as opposing groups clash, and power plays start to metastasize within the royal family.

Off the top, the play promises to be thrilling. Audaciously, Bartlett has his characters speak in blank verse, which is an inspired way to embody the antiquity of the monarchy and to create tension between that historical weight and the unpredictable contemporary setting in which the characters find themselves. There are other juxtapositions, too: the pomp of Elizabeth’s funeral, which includes a stirringly sung hymn, butts up against the quotidian as the royals’ press secretary stage manages the event. And there’s emotional resonance: Charles, who is grieving deeply, is convinced that his role as a figurehead is to remain publicly stoic.

From the Greeks to Shakespeare to modern scripts such as Frost/Nixon, the effects of personal idiosyncrasies on state institutions have fired dramatic invention. In Bartlett’s speculation, he amuses himself and us by borrowing freely from Shakespearean conventions and even from specific Shakespearean plays. There’s the blank verse, of course, but also the appearance of pretty female ghost with a distinctive hairstyle. Charles’s son, Prince Harry, takes after his namesake, the young Prince Hal from Henry IV, Part 1: especially when he falls for a republican commoner named Jess, he wants to forego his princely duty. There’s something Lear-like about Charles’s bafflement, particularly in the face of betrayals. And, in the most obvious and least successful instance, Prince William’s wife, Kate Middleton, becomes an updated Lady Macbeth. (With other characters behaving in ways that are consistent with what we know of their real-life counterparts, it’s a bit hard to swallow such devious ambition from a figure we know primarily as accommodating—even though Bartlett provides her with a feminist rationalization.)

But here’s where things really falls apart for me: to truly buy into King Charles III, especially in Act 1, you’ve got to accept the notion that there might be some legitimacy to Charles’s political interference, his refusal to sign the bill. I don’t. The play floats the argument that the monarchy might be a legitimate political check on the potential abuse of the democratic system by elected officials. But trying to moderate that abuse through an essentially primitive veneration of hereditary power would be insane. Checks on democracy must come from within democratic institutions, including the press itself. Bartlett has chosen the wrong arena, the wrong institution.

The monarchy plays a crucial role in British identity, of course, and my sense is that Elizabeth’s inevitable demise is causing genuine concern in the UK, especially as that alliance struggles with its identity within Europe and within its own borders. But the UK’s chaos is not my Canadian chaos, thank God.

King Charles III picks up for me again in Act 2, when it essentially becomes a family drama. Still, both Prince Harry and Prince William make crucial choices in the play’s second half that seem strike me as under-motivated.

Director Kevin Bennett and his team do some arresting things with this material.

The visuals are superb. Kevin McAllister’s set is monumental: he bisects a sleeklymodernist back wall with an imposing—and rusting—portcullis, giving the play’s tensions essentialist expression. And Christopher David Gauthier’s costumes are a collective triumph. Charles’s stoutly unflattering double-breasted suits, the much sleeker tailoring on his more savvy PM, the severity of Kate’s stylishness, and Camilla’s matronly frills: I was in love with all of it.

Ted Cole’s performance as Charles is touching. Cole’s King is a decent person struggling to be true to himself and to reinforce his shaky ego in a milieu he doesn’t fully comprehend. Cole employs an odd and annoying speech pattern—he often pauses in the middle of sentences as if leaning into the line breaks of the blank verse—but it’s the character’s combination of steeliness and bafflement that linger in the mind.

Charlie Gallant’s Harry is also particularly impressive. Gallant’s skill is evident in a scene in which Harry confides to his brother about his rocky love life. Gallant opens his heart to William and to the audience as easily as if he were walking through a door.

And, in her Arts Club debut, Katherine Gauthier delivers a very interesting moment. In a confrontation with Camilla, the chilly Kate’s vulnerability suddenly bursts through. It’s a testament to Gauthier’s skill that this turn is simultaneously surprising and credible.

Director Bennett has cast well and all of the performers are strong, although some accents wobble.

Bennett leans into the Shakespearean artifice of the script, finding multiple opportunities for the characters to address the audience directly, often as the houselights illuminate us in Darren Bouquist’s active and effective lighting design.

Stylistically, there’s an undeniable vitality to both the script and the production. But the play’s central dialectic left me cold.

KING CHARLES III By Mike Bartlett. Directed by Kevin Bennett. An Arts Club production at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, October 25. Continues until November 19.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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