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Regional Reviews: Chicago

King Charles III
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule

Robert Bathurst and Cast
Photo by Liz Lauren
Shakespeare wrote of kings who were expected to be leaders and to take responsibility for the welfare of their subjects. A responsibility they were born into and expected to fulfill from their coronation until their death. Not just for four years, nor for eight—but for most of their adult lives. The royals of Britain's constitutional monarchy have no such expectations today—the elected members of Parliament are the ones charged with governing. But what if a monarch of today's Great Britain chose to actually take responsibility for their people—and exercise the authority they still technically hold in order to follow their conscience and do what they believe to be right? That's the premise of Mike Bartlett's King Charles III, set at some point in the future just after the death of Queen Elizabeth II (assuming such a thing might ever happen!).

Prince Charles ("Downton Abbey"'s Robert Bathurst) has finally ascended to the throne and before long is faced with a moral dilemma. Will he assent to a "privacy" law recently passed by Parliament that would protect citizens from London's notorious tabloid journalism but that would threaten freedom of the press? He's required to assent to any democratically passed legislation before it becomes law, but royal assent has not been refused since the year 1707. The public is equally divided on the law, but even so, Charles's refusal to sign the law would certainly create an uproar that would threaten the monarchy itself.

This hypothetical situation and the attendant moral crisis gives some heft to this play that originated in London in 2014 and ran on Broadway for three months just a year ago. It works on a level of entertainment nearly as well, though. We all know and are at least a little fascinated with the Royal Family. This play takes us inside it - even as it has to imagine how these royals might react in such circumstances they have probably never even contemplated.

Bartlett builds from what we do know about the royals and imagines the rest. Bartlett's Charles is gentle, thoughtful, and possessing a keen sense of humor. Charles' wife Camilla (Kate Skinner) has become a bit of a comic matron. William (Jordan Dean) is, as always, blonde and a little bland. Bartlett paints him as the family member most concerned about maintaining the monarchy and its traditions. Princess Catherine (or Kate Middleton, played by Amanda Drinkall) is as grounded and intelligent as we believe her to be, but turns into a bit of a Lady Macbeth when Charles's behavior threatens the monarchy and William's eventual ascension to the throne. Prince Harry (Alec Manley Wilson) is just as we know him—a party boy who would rather escape the trappings of royalty, and a "second son" in the shadow of the Crown Prince. He is here a prodigal son who, as it turns out, is more loyal to his father than the more stable brother. Parallels to King Lear and that king's youngest daughter Cordelia are obvious.

It's not only Charles, but also Harry with whom we most identify. On a clandestine trip to a nightclub, Harry meets the commoner Jessica (Rae Gray), who is opposed to the monarchy and helps him find his true self. Harry's newfound connection to something truer than blind obedience to the traditions of the monarchy is a moral core he shares with Charles, though it takes a while for the father and this son to discover they share this.

King Charles III is called "a future history play," and it is written in the style of Shakespeare's history plays, not only with its blank verse, but also in its liberal use of direct address, introduction of commoner characters (there's a food cart vendor who meets Harry), ghosts (the ghost of Princess Diana), and its deliberate, though never contrived, similarities in plot themes to Shakespeare's histories and tales of fictionalized kings. Bartlett's intention to give us a new and contemporary themed Shakespeare history play is enhanced by the venue. The Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Courtyard Theater is known to its patrons as a cathedral for Shakespeare's plays, especially given the company's recent Tug of War two-part, 12-hour mashup of six of those history plays. Bartlett's conceit is executed perfectly, and even though he might as easily have crafted a snappier play by forgoing the blank verse, his concept helps us better understand and relate to Shakespeare's histories. We know Prince Charles et al as living humans. Perhaps seeing them in a (future) history play makes it easier to imagine Shakespeare's Kings Henry, Richard and John as human bearing great burdens as well.

Director Gary Griffin and cast do their best to keep the blank verse organic sounding and the sometimes long stretches of dialogue natural and lively. Robert Bathurst is a total delight as Charles—human, self-deprecating, landing his clever barbs both verbally and with wry facial expressions. Wilson does remarkable work as Harry, showing us his journey from troubled party boy to thoughtful but loyal renegade son—all without relying on any easy acting choices or becoming maudlin. Clever character acting is also delivered by Jonathan Weir as Charles' press secretary and Skinner's turn as a slightly dotty Camilla.

There's little in the way of a set. Scott Davis uses set pieces, such as desks, that are raised to and lowered from the center of the thrust via an elevator and trapdoor. The proscenium upstage has been fitted with wooden pillars and galleries that match the woodwork of the theater itself, giving the impression of a theater in the round. Griffin keeps much of the action center stage on the thrust, but that only serves to make entrances from the aisles and use of the alcove-like spaces on the proscenium even more surprising when the action shifts from scenes with just a few actors to raucous crowd scenes. Mara Blumenfeld's costumes range from the elaborate trappings of royalty to business attire and clothes for the commoners that include club wear and working-class grunge.

In other words, this is a big play—with big themes and strong entertainment values. At a run time of two hours and 45 minutes, it could stand to be a little shorter. But then it wouldn't feel nearly so Shakespearean.

King Charles III will play the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Na vie Pier, Chicago, through January 15, 2017. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 312-595-5600 or visit

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