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By Shannon Stockwell
Explore how Mike Bartlett’s future history play echoes Shakespeare in this three-part series.
The structure of King Charles III was clear to playwright Mike Bartlett from the first moments of inspiration. “The idea for [the play] arrived in my imagination with the form and content very clear, and inextricably linked,” says Bartlett. “The content was an epic royal family drama, dealing with power and the national constitution, and therefore the form had surely to be Shakespearean.” The play would be five acts, just like Shakespeare’s dramas. King Charles III would be the tragic central figure, akin to King Lear or Prince Hamlet. And Bartlett knew that his play would have a comic subplot, similar to the one in Henry IV, probably involving Prince Harry. But even though Bartlett began the project with a strong handle on the structure, it would still be a long time before the play found its place on the page.
It took so long for Bartlett to begin writing because, in truth, he was intimidated. He knew that writing a Shakespearean-style play necessitated writing in iambic pentameter, a kind of poetic meter in which each line has (roughly) ten syllables that alternate between unstressed and stressed (da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM). This was the verse in which Shakespeare wrote most of his plays. Bartlett says, “Verse is one thing (and a thing I knew very little about), but verse drama? And a form of verse drama that would lay this play alongside the greatest literature in the English language? All of this was enough to stop me writing a word, so for two years the play remained merely a good idea—unspoiled by any attempt to write it into reality.”
But finally, Bartlett mentioned his idea to director Rupert Goold, who convinced him to give it a chance to grow. And that meant Bartlett had to find some way to make writing in verse more accessible. He was inspired by the performances of Ken Campbell (1941–2008), an actor who improvised scenes with his theater company in nearly perfect iambic pentameter. Campbell had a theory about how Shakespeare was able to be so prolific. Many playwrights of that era wrote in iambic pentameter because the rhythm made the lines easy for actors to remember. Because the Bard was also an actor, he performed in iambic pentameter all the time. The meter became instinctual to him.
Bartlett knew that he needed to get the rhythm of iambic pentameter into his bones, just like Shakespeare did. So he began to live in verse. “I wrote lines and lines of iambic pentameter, speaking it round the house to myself, trying to get to the point where I might be able to improvise the verse fluidly, hoping that if I could, the writing would be driven by the desires and thoughts of the characters, rather than aesthetics or metric requirements.”
When King Charles III was performed at last, Bartlett realized that some audience members didn’t even notice the play was written in verse. At first he was disappointed by this, but he came to see that it was actually a compliment to the playwriting. “The mechanics of verse drama should happen behind the scenes, allowing the audience to experience the characters and story.”
This article by Shannon Stockwell first appeared in American Conservatory Theater’s performance guide series, Words on Plays, in 2016. For more information about Words on Plays, visit www.act-sf.org/wordsonplays.