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Well, they set me loose in the wilds of Washington last weekend. I was “action dramaturging” at the Newseum, where I participated in a panel with the suave and eloquent David Muse, Artistic Director of the Studio Theatre, and the apt moderator John Maynard, Director of Programming at the museum. There are even photos to prove it!
Our subject was Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, expertly directed by David and currently playing at STC’s Sidney Harman Hall. For those who don’t know the play, it is a fascinating, audacious piece of work: a new play but one written in recognizably Shakespearean form. Moreover, it is fearless in tackling some big problems, fusing our eternal fascination with British royalty to the dystopic convolutions of our contemporary politics with panache and gleeful vigor.
As David puts it, King Charles III is a play “where the new guy finds himself in power and shakes things up, destabilizing the government. People protest in the streets, politicians scramble behind the scenes to figure out what to do and the press can’t keep up since the news is moving so fast it makes newspapers seem ridiculous.”
Gee, I wonder how that could be relevant right now….
But lest you think this was some kind of political ranting session, our discourse stayed largely on the level of ideas. As David pointed out, Bartlett’s ingenious synthesis of form and content makes King Charles III a perfect play for Shakespeare Theatre Company. “I think Mike wanted to write about an institution at the center of British life: the British monarchy,” said David. “And to do so, he chose a dramatic form that was at the center of British life: the Shakespeare history play.”
As a result, despite the fact that Mike Bartlett is undeniably a Studio Theatre kind of writer, King Charles III is a disconcertingly familiar STC kind of play. And some of the dramaturgy is spookily Bardolatrous. One of my favorites (along with the ghost!) is when the depressed young Prince Harry goes about in disguise as a common man to get the feel of the local populace. Instead of a Welshman at Agincourt, however, he comes across a kebab vendor who shares a beautiful image of the English body politic with him and us:
It’s like this meat here, all pulled together. It’s turning, cooking […] Smaller all the time, 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?
And here lies the beating, cunning heart of the play. Rather than use our fascination with the royals to give us a theatrical soap opera à la the manifold recent movies, TV series and miniseries devoted to the royal family, rather than deploy karaoke Shakespeare in order to bombast blankly, Bartlett involves us in a play that mirrors the divides and crises of our contemporary world. The kebab dealer’s image—one of polyglot diversity cut into thin strips—is one of Britannia that fits with our sudden new age, of an internationalist world order turned suddenly and violently toward one of rising nationalisms.
I have often thought that “history play” is the wrong term, or at least a partially accurate one. Shakespeare’s histories, like King Charles III, depicted the royal family and made reference to specific historical events, but they were really serving as a screen for the ideological and political concerns of their own day. The historical Richard II and Richard III were nothing like the indolent sloth or humpbacked madman of Shakespearean myth and those little princes in the tower were most likely snuffed out by Henry VII, Elizabeth I’s grandfather. Shakespeare’s history plays are really journalistic, in the original sense of the word: a document or record of a place in time, an image of the nation, one unfolding both on the stage and in the audience’s collective consciousness.
By producing this play in Washington, then, King Charles III becomes an exploration of our own national identity and sovereignty, a rethinking of America’s place in the world and by implication the entire Western project, at a time in which such thoughts feel unusually valuable. I think that’s one of the reasons why audiences during the preview week were so receptive to this play, so fascinated by it despite its seemingly escapist subject matter. Though written in a pre-Brexit, pre-Trump world, the audience apprehended the manner in which this play investigates the deep matter of what it means to be alive right now, the way in which it charts the seismic shifts occurring in global and American politics.
And what is this deep matter? As David Muse said this past Sunday, King Charles III is ultimately Shakespearean in the deepest of ways. It does not take sides, satirize or editorialize. On the one hand, Bartlett dramatizes the dangers of a king who suddenly starts acting like one in a modern, pluralistic, democratic society. On the other hand, he acknowledges the institution of the crown as a stabilizing (albeit straitjacketing) collective ritual in the fabric of British society. Britain can no more do without the monarchy than it can sustain it as a functioning force. And in a private-public conundrum worthy of Coriolanus, Charles finds himself stuck in the middle. “My life has been long ling’ring for the throne,” Bartlett’s character says, in one of his early soliloquies. But what if his desire to make something of himself and of the throne, what starts as a deeply principled stand, leads him to the verge of Mussolini-esque behavior?
Among its many other thrills, Bartlett’s play serves as a reminder that the modern ship of the state is a fragile thing indeed. There is no way of knowing what icebergs lie in wait, or how perilously close they are. There are, however, the uncanny parallels of Shakespearean history. They may not repeat, but they certainly do rhyme.
all photos © Bruce Guthrie