Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III is one of the most audacious theatrical experiments in recent memory. Initially produced at London’s Almeida Theatre in 2014 before award-winning runs on Broadway and the West End, Bartlett’s play speculatively imagines the future reign of Charles Windsor as King of England. Bartlett employs Shakespeare’s flexible, inherently theatrical medium of blank verse (iambic pentameter), which allows the stage to transform with the speed of thought itself. In other words, Shakespeare’s (and Bartlett’s) dramaturgy is enabled by the metamorphic capabilities of its language.
Halfway through the play, for instance, Prince Harry goes in disguise among the common people (rather like Henry V at Agincourt). He buys a doner kebab from a vendor, a man on the street who, like Shakespeare’s Scrivener in Richard III, stops the action to share his perspective. “It’s like this meat here,” Paul says: “all pulled together. It’s turning, cooking.” As the vendor speaks, the kebab becomes an image of the United Kingdom itself, a series of layers crumbling under economic and political pressures. “Smaller all the time,” he says, “and when does Britain get so cut down, that it’s not Britain anymore? […] If you take enough layers away, what have you got left, underneath, know what I mean?”
As Bartlett would write in The Guardian: “The language leads, and we only have time to think in its wake. I only manage it a few times in the play, but in performance you can sometimes feel the audience enjoying the experience of catching up.”
The flexibility of Shakespeare’s medium also opens up a wider range of dramatic possibilities. Unlike the Greeks, who depicted a mythic hero’s story, or his contemporaries, who wove together multiple fantastic plots, Shakespeare’s history plays chart the rise and fall of entire countries. The characters are real people, ranging from commoners on the street to those atop the social ladder. In place of the typical dramatic unities of time, place, and action, Shakespeare substitutes a unity of his own: nationality. Rather than being set in a time and place, Shakespeare’s history plays dramatize time and place itself. Staging England, Shakespeare asks us to reconsider our own nationhood and our roles therein.
The dramatic action of King Charles III—the short and troubled reign of a king, ending in abdication—most closely evokes Richard II, but its sweeping panorama takes in many of the Bard’s greatest hits. For instance, Prince Harry, like his Shakespearean namesake, begins as a dissolute prince. Slumming among the common folk, this latter-day Hal meets (instead of Falstaff) a girl named Jessica, who shows him how the other half lives. Like the eventual Henry V, Harry is forced to balance personal affection with the demands of state.
But the most strikingly Shakespearean element of the play is Charles himself, whose soliloquies chronicle his self-knowledge. “My better thoughts – they start / From scratch, slow cooked, and brewed with time,” Charles says at the beginning of the play, sounding like Claudius praying unsuccessfully: “My life has been a ling’ring for the throne.”
Charles emerges as a figure tragically out of time, a royal who insists on exercising his power in a modern world that refuses to recognize it. Met with political opposition and then by the chaotic consequences of his actions, Charles is forced to confront the limits of his own identity. It is a recognition that prompts his abdication, a decision accompanied by profound bitterness:
I will retreat to bed, and when I wake
To a new dawn, I’ll simply be an old
Forgotten gardener, who potters round
And talks to plants and chuckles to himself.
Whilst far away the King and Queen do rule
Over a golden age of monarchy,
That bothers no-one, does no good, and is
A pretty plastic picture with no meaning. (5.1)
What is this plastic “golden age” that Charles bemoans? Where does real political power rest, if not with the king? The play’s women furnish an answer of sorts. The first of note is Diana Spencer, who appears as a ghost (like Hamlet’s dead father), uttering a cryptic prophecy. Second is Jessica the commoner, whose scandalous past, exposed by the tabloids, comes to endanger the monarchy. The last and most revelatory is Kate Middleton, who unveils her female will to power, Lady Macbeth-like, in the play’s pivotal Act 4, Scene 3.
All three are visions of personal lives made public in a mediatized age: a woman killed by the press (Diana), one who falls victim to it (Jessica), and one who wields it, if not like a sword, then like a Kardashian (Kate). Not coincidentally, the conflict between Charles and Parliament, inspired by the “phone-hacking” scandal, hinges entirely on this question. With his love of books and architecture, Charles is fundamentally a figure of the old world, a relic of an older age. He wants to fight for modern freedoms, but he uses the rhetorical tools of yesterday.
What Charles doesn’t understand—and Kate knows too well—is that the more public one’s parts are, the more power one has. True power, Bartlett seems to be saying, lies in celebrity rather than political will. As Kate says:
But if I must put up with taunts, and make
So public everything I am, then I
Demand things for myself, I ask no less
Than power to achieve my will in fair
Exchange for total service to the state. (4.3)
The monarchy still has power, but only insofar as it claims the body and soul of those performing it. It is a theme found frequently in Shakespeare, sounded here in a play worthy of him.