ABOUT THE ARTIST
By Simon Hodgson
Last summer Mike Bartlett’s neo-Shakespearean drama King Charles III was nominated for five Tony Awards®. Last fall, the second series of his television drama Doctor Foster was broadcast on BBC television. The spotlight is becoming familiar for the fast-rising Bartlett. In 2010 his play Cock won an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre. The following year Love, Love, Love won Best New Play in the United Kingdom’s Theatre Awards. In addition to his seven plays for BBC Radio, he has written more than a dozen plays performed in New York, London and regional British theaters. He has been playwright-in-residence at the Royal Court Theatre and writer-in-residence at the National Theatre. And he’s only 35 years old. We caught up with Bartlett to talk politics, pentameter and King Charles III.
What makes the British royal family so ripe for storytelling?
First, they are the country embodied—which is a very Shakespearean idea. When you write about these specific people, you are then writing about the entire country. The endless metaphors and parallels you can draw between the personal and the national are brilliant. Shakespeare draws those metaphors and I can’t tell you how useful doing that is in this play.
The Windsors themselves have an interesting narrative. They went from being really popular after World War II to drifting out of popularity through the ’70s and ’80s. The depths of that unpopularity were in the mid-’90s, with Windsor Castle burning down and the divorce of Diana and Charles. With William, Harry and Kate, a new generation has fallen in love with this family. You see a dramatic rise and fall with the Windsors. Those peaks and troughs are a gift for a storyteller.
The play has echoes of several Shakespeare plays. How conscious were you of those resonances, and how deliberately did that influence the register of the language?
It was a very conscious decision to write it in a Shakespearean form. The idea that Charles would become king and would refuse to sign a bill into law came at the same time as the idea of writing a Shakespearean-style play. When I started to write it, I mainly had to practice how to write in this form. What I didn’t do was sit down and study my Shakespeare and go through his plays and deliberately add references. I’ve been brought up on Shakespeare. In Britain you study his work from the age of 13 all the way through high school, and then I studied it at university, and I’ve seen lots of productions. Any references that come through in the writing instinctively are great, but this wasn’t an academic exercise where I cut and pasted. I was more interested in the dramatic principles of Shakespeare than clever references.
What kind of dramatic principles?
A five-act structure and a central tragic archetypal figure. And a slightly comic subplot written in prose that’s thematically linked to the main plot, which is written in verse—that’s another Shakespearean technique.
Much of King Charles III is written in iambic pentameter. How does the verse affect the storytelling?
It’s a way of writing kings and queens that feels appropriate. If you write them speaking as we speak, it would sound as though you were mocking them. But if they speak in verse, their language has a more formal rhythm and a heightened vocabulary. Also, verse compresses meaning down. You can get more meaning into three words of verse than you can in three lines of prose.
Why did you choose press freedom as the bill on which Charles takes his stand?
There is a lot of discussion about this issue in Britain. It felt like a subject about which half the audience might think one thing and half might think the opposite, and that’s always good. Also the issue of press freedom and privacy matters to Charles very personally, so the idea that he might end up defending the press is fascinating. You can feel it oozing Shakespearean complications.
What are the challenges for an American audience in watching this play?
We made small changes from the U.K. version to clarify to the U.S. audience that the constitutional framework really exists, that I didn’t just make up the fact that the king or queen has to sign the bill into law and technically they could refuse to do that. Before King Charles III opened in New York, people warned me that sometimes Broadway audiences were not great at
listening. We didn’t have that experience at all. People were smart and attentive. They’re very Shakespeare savvy. And they enjoyed learning about the strange intricacies of the United Kingdom’s nonexistent constitution and comparing that with America’s situation, where the constitution is written down and very important.
Reviewers have compared the characters in King Charles III to Shakespearean roles like Lady Macbeth, Prince Hal and King Lear. Was this organic or intended from the start?
It was pretty organic. The only conscious comparison was Harry and Prince Hal. When I was writing Kate there was no Lady Macbeth in my head. All I did was write her as an intelligent woman exerting power. It’s fascinating that if you have an intelligent woman who exerts power, you immediately compare her to Lady Macbeth. Is Charles King Lear because of his age or is he Hamlet thinking, “Should I do it or not?” Those Shakespearean characters are all mixed into the characters in the play, but they’re not tributes to those roles.
After Britain’s vote to exit the European Union, does it seem like there are parallels with the constitutional crisis in your play?
I was reminded of the play the morning after Brexit happened, when we woke up to find that something we had taken for granted as part of our identity had gone. You could feel the disorientation. I even overheard someone saying,
“You know what’s going to happen now? Chances are the queen will die!” They were linking these two ideas as events that shock the population and mean we’re not quite sure who we are anymore.
What do you want audiences to take away from King Charles III?
I like the idea that the play becomes a frame through which people can relate their own experiences. I love experiencing plays and stories and television in terms of something that happens in my life. You use art to understand emotions and predicaments and politics and society and economics. You enjoy it on the night and you feel buzzing when you come out, but something of it stays with you and becomes part of your life. That’s what I’m after.
This article by Simon Hodgson first appeared in American Conservatory Theater’s performance program in 2016.