FACES AND VOICES
Playwriting, Politics and Audacity
By Hannah Hessel Ratner, Audience Enrichment Manager
A contemporary play with Shakespearean ambitions falls in a sweet spot for David Muse. His history directing Shakespeare goes back to his tenure as the Associate Artistic Director at STC. Now Artistic Director of Studio Theatre, he focuses on plays from living authors—including Muse’s production of Mike Bartlett’s Cock, which won the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Play for 2014. For this production of Bartlett’s King Charles III, Muse had to summon skills both classic and contemporary. He spoke with American Conservatory Theater’s Simon Hodgson in San Francisco—here’s an excerpt from that interview.
What makes Mike Bartlett’s work so powerful? What’s it like working with him?
Summing up Mike Bartlett’s work is tricky because the forms that his plays take are so incredibly varied. In fact, that’s one of the defining characteristics of his work. But I’ve read a lot of Mike Bartlett plays, I’ve seen a lot of Mike Bartlett plays, and I know the guy, so I’ve noticed some trends. He’s incredibly precise with language. He writes with real control of rhythm. There’s a certain palpable confidence in his writing. It’s bold, sometimes to the point of viciousness. He is preoccupied with gamesmanship and he’s interested in the metaphor of theater as sport. Mike is a surprisingly gracious, lovely, gentle guy. I say “surprisingly” because so many of his plays are assertive and bold and aggressive.
What relevance does King Charles III have for an American audience?
I think that relevance is a tricky word. I tend to prefer to ask whether a play is interesting. And this play is most certainly that.
Like any great Shakespeare play, the themes in King Charles III are bigger than the specifics of history. This play deals with idealism versus pragmatism and elitism versus populism. It deals with unspoken and radioactive things between sons and fathers, the persistent struggles of being a woman with influence, and generational change. And like a Shakespearean history play, it has a complicated, fascinating central character with nobility and with flaws.
Americans have been drawn to Shakespeare’s history plays for centuries. Why? Because they operate as much on the level of the human as the national, because the psychology is as interesting as the politics, and because we as audience members can take imaginative leaps and apply his play to modern circumstances. King Charles III operates like those history plays.
What’s your favorite thing about King Charles III?
I love its audacity. I feel that way about many of Mike’s plays. I mean, who says to himself, “I’m going to write a play about my country’s royal family that examines what it means to be British, and I’m going to write it in the form of a Shakespearean history play”? When I first heard about it, I admired the boldness of the endeavor but thought there was no way Mike could pull it off. I’m very happy that he proved me wrong!
Theatre is ephemeral—but King Charles III has had the unique chance to run in three cities from early fall of 2016 until now. This third D.C. presentation has the potential to feel different after the election results and transfer of power. STC asked Muse to consider how the play may change over time.
Does this play feel different to you post-election?
In my experience, everything with political content feels different and more charged at the moment. Charles is no Trump, or Clinton for that matter, but there are certainly parallels
to which audiences feel particularly alive. In the play, you have: a country freaking out about the behavior of a leader; a king who expresses unease in private but feels compelled to project confidence; a country coming to terms with its diminished role in the world; a conflict between old and new ways of doing things; and a news cycle that operates so quickly that newspapers feel quaint. So yeah, it’s easy to see our situation in the drama onstage.
How do you think future political changes, here and in the United Kingdom, will affect the longevity and life of the play?
The play is purposefully of the moment—I don’t think Mike intended for it to have a long shelf life. And of course if the Queen were to pass away in real life, the imaginative conceit of the play would feel quite different.
That said, this play, like a history play of Shakespeare’s, is about a particular moment but also about more universal concerns: the gap between our private and public selves; how we deal with beloved national traditions when they become outmoded; what role principle plays in politics; and so on. Those themes will continue to hold our attention for decades.