Though clever and gorgeous, ‘Charles’ offers up little to care about
|Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents|
|King Charles III|
Review by Catey Sullivan
Like the stiff-upper-lipped Englishman of stereotype, the royals of King Charles III are a chilly, largely poker-faced bunch. Alas, that reserve helps make Mike Bartlett’s tale of the British monarchy something of a slog. Unless you’re a dedicated Anglophile, you may well find yourself struggling to care about the trials and tribulations of Charles and his family.
Set in the near future, King Charles III imagines a Britain where Prince Charles has ascended to the top spot following the death of his long-reigning mum, Queen Elizabeth II. Charles proves to be an ineffectual king at best, setting a nationwide crisis into motion when he refuses to sign a Parliamentary action that would curtail freedom of the press. Chaos follows after he executes a despot-worthy power-move that essentially does away with Britain’s top elected officials.
Bartlett’s plot hinges on how – or if – Charles will lead his subjects out of the unrest that’s gripped the land. It’s not a surprise that leadership isn’t one of Charles’ fortes. He describes his philosophy of rule something like this: “I’ll just sit here until what I want comes into existence.“ The deeper Bartlett takes us into the play, the clearer it is that such laissez-faire isn’t effective. It comes as little surprise when Charles’ inner-circle begins plotting to have the out-of-touch, old guy sent out to pasture and replaced by a younger lot certain they’re much more relevant.
The main problem with King Charles is that it is nigh on impossible to muster up even a modicum of a care about whether Charles will remain in charge or whether his slightly serpent-toothed children will force the old man out. These are people who sit on gold thrones. Who live in literal palaces. Who can surround their homes with tanks, just to make a point. They will never have to worry about healthcare or paying the rent or finding work. And while it’s entirely possible to make the woes of the .0001 percent utterly enthralling (See “The Crown,” or “Wolf Hall” or Cate Blanchett), Bartlett doesn’t come anywhere near enthralling in King Charles.
Indeed, I do imagine it would be upsetting if one were King and in danger of losing one’s crown. But if losing a largely ceremonial title is the biggest problem you have to face in life? Sorry/not sorry. Bartlett’s drama does nothing to make that loss relatable to the 99.999 percent whose problems do not include being God’s Anointed Sovereign on Earth. Ditto the blustering outrage of Parliament that punctuates King Charles III. All those angry old men in bespoke suits seem quite interchangeable by the midway point of the play
That said, director Gary Griffin has assembled an ensemble of top tier actors for King Charles, eliciting performances that go a long way toward alleviating the play’s talky arduousness.
At the top of the bill is Robert Bathurst, arguably best known as the chap who left Lady Edith at the altar in the third season of “Downtown Abbey.” Bathurst’s King Charles is both loveable and infuriating, a fellow whose off-the-charts entitlement sometimes makes him seem like an overgrown, spoilt child. But Bathurst’s monarch is also a man of principles. His integrity is sincere, even when it’s clueless.
The supporting players are an amusingly familiar lot – costume designer Mara Blumenfeld and wig/make-up designer Richard Jarvie have done a remarkable job in transforming Kate Skinner and Amanda Drinkall into doppelgangers for Camilla Parker-Bowles, Duchess of Cornwall, and Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, respectively.
The most memorable of the Royals on stage is Drinkall’s Duchess of Cambridge. Who knew Duchess Shiny Locks had such a Machiavellian streak? As Prince William, Jordan Dean comes across more as Kate’s easily-manipulated husband than as a man with a vivid, autonomous person all his own.
The most interesting of the Royals is Prince Harry (Alec Manley Wilson), a Peter Pan-type wild child who takes up with a commoner named Jess (Rae Gray). You can tell Jess is a risky choice for Harry because she dresses like “Pretty Woman’s” Vivian Ward pre-shopping spree and speaks like Eliza Doolittle, pre-Henry Higgins. She most likely doesn’t know the difference between a fish fork and a dessert fork. Such ignorance coupled with the naked pictures that surface from her misspent youth presents quite the scandal for the Royals.
Wilson gives Harry just enough lost-boy poignancy to make him briefly empathetic, although his attraction to Gray’s sullen, one-dimensional Jess is never believable. Moreover, it’s tough to feel bad for a guy who could spend seven nights a week In VIP rooms chugging million-dollar bottles of Tequila were he so inclined. So Harry can’t be with the girl who is briefly the girl of his dreams? Oh, boo hoo. Cry me a river of Crystal.
Scenic designer Scott Davis’ monumental yet spare, elegant set nicely evokes both the towering, overarching power of the monarchy and overwhelming, omnipresent theatricality that being a member of the Royal family entails. Davis’ set mimics the very space King Charles plays in, providing the audience an elaborate upstage mirror-image of the theater itself. Everything about royal life is stage managed, from balcony waves to sealing wax insignias. Davis’ set is a marvelous evocation of the endless performance, pomp and circumstance embedded in a form of government that requires actual people to stand absolutely motionless for hours at a stretch while wearing three-foot-tall bear-skin hats.
Still, as clever and sometimes gorgeous as King Charles is to behold, it falters in the storytelling. The Royal family never seems quite real, and their problems – momentous through they may be – seem as cold and distant as another planet.
King Charles III continues through January 15th at Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand (map), with performances Tuesdays at 7:30pm, Wednesdays 1pm & 7:30pm, Thursdays-Fridays 7:30pm, Saturdays 3pm & 8pm, Sundays 2pm & 6:30pm. Tickets are $48-$88, and are available by phone (312-595-5600) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at ChicagoShakes.com. (Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Liz Lauren
Robert Bathurst (King Charles III), Sarah Chalcroft (Ghost of Princess Diana, free newspaper woman, ensemble), Jordan Dean (Prince William), Amanda Drinkall (Kate Middleton), Sean Fortunato (Mr. Evans), Rae Gray (Jess), Lawrence Grimm (Clive, Sir Gordon, Speaker of the House), Jen Johansen (Sarah, TV producer), David Lively (Mr. Stevens), Jeff Parker (butler, ensemble), Sam Pearson (Couttsey, Sir Michael, ensemble), Kate Skinner (Camilla), Demetrios Troy (Spencer, Paul, ensemble), Jonathan Weir (James Reiss), Alec Manley Wilson (Prince Harry), Grant Niezgodski, Tyrone Phillips, Megan Storti (ensemble), Jesse Dornan, Kate Marie Smith, David Turrentine (understudies)
behind the scenes
Gary Griffin (director), Scott Davis (scenic design), Alan Schwanke (associate scenic design), Mara Blumenfeld (costume design), Philip Rosenberg, Joel Shier (lighting design), Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen (sound design), Richard Jarvie (makeup and wig design), Eva Breneman (dialect coach), Kathryn Walsh (verse coach), Dennis J. Conners (production stage manager), Kevin Gregory Dwyer (asst. stage manager), Bob Mason (casting), Nancy Piccione (New York casting), Amy Ball (London casting), Rick Boynton (creative producer), Barbara Gaines (artistic director), Criss Henderson (executive director), Liz Lauren (photographs)