It has been a long four months for Anglophiles in Gotham. “The Audience,” Helen Mirren‘s recycled wet kiss to Queen Elizabeth II, closed in late June, and theatergoers here in need of another tour-park glimpse of the British monarchy have had to make do with the hit musical “Hamilton” and its churlish portrait of King George. The big difference between George in the 18th Century and Lizzie today is that one had power and the other has none. “The Audience” unintentionally made that clear: Whenever Mirren’s queen sat down with a prime minister for one of their weekly meetings, what she said had absolutely no impact on parliament, much less what she ate at tea.
At last, fans of the British monarchy have another play on Broadway to give them reason to genuflect. The winner of a few Olivier awards, it’s “King Charles III,” which opened Sunday at the Music Box Theatre. Mike Bartlett begins his play unpromisingly with yet another of those weekly meetings between a prime minister and a modern monarch. In this case, however, the monarch isn’t Queen Elizabeth but her son Charles, who is suddenly king because his 89-year-old mom is now dead. How prescient of Bartlett.
King Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith) may be as irrelevant as his mother, but he’s not as compliant, according to the playwright. Charles refuses to sign the very first bill Prime Minister Evans (Adam James) presents him, and when the government decides to ignore the king, he dissolves the parliament and orders a new election.
“King Charles III” has a smarmy appeal for theatergoers who’ve never read People magazine. They will be shocked to learn that Prince Harry (Richard Goulding) may not be Charles’s son. Also, Harry’s having an affair with a commoner named Jess (Tafline Steen), who had some compromising photos taken of her with a previous bedmate. The photos end up in the tabloids, a scandal that could have been prevented if King Charles had signed that bill, which restricts freedom of the press. There’s also a Princess Di ghost (Sally Scott), roaming about for poetic justice, who goads Harry and Prince William (Oliver Chris) to turn on their father.
The ghost is a nice Elizabethan touch, because it’s about this moment in the play that many of the characters start to spout Hamlet Lite by putting adjectives after their nouns and using the word “thus” a lot. Too bad the Harry/Jess subplot doesn’t ripen, except to let us know that he eats at Burger King and has enjoyed a Whopper there. Since there’s nothing convincing about this romance, Charles’s refusal to sign the bill that would have prevented Jess’s public disgrace has no real repercussions. Meanwhile, Prince William and wife Kate (Lydia Wilson) prove no more interesting on stage than in any of their real-life photo ops.
Something truly Shakespearean, however, happens during intermission under Rupert Goold’s slow-burn direction. William and Kate grow spines as well as teeth, and to say more is to give away the story. Again, there’s a smarmy appeal to having such bland figures in our current history be turned into fictional villains. Chris goes from dull to wicked with British efficiency. Wilson is much less effective in her transition, unfortunately, and never becomes the Eleanor Iselin that the play needs her to be.
That Angela Lansbury reference is apt, because Pigott-Smith as King Charles is giving a spot-on imitation of her prime adversary in “The Manchurian Candidate,” John McGiver. Best known for his loopy comedic persona, McGiver switched gears in that 1962 political thriller to play a powerful liberal senator beset by reactionary forces. In a powerhouse performance, Pigott-Smith switches gears too, but in the space of the same play. His befuddled light touch, making him a straw monarch in the first act, digs deep to reveal a truly heroic gravitas in the second. Admiring the jewels in the crown, he says, “[but] turn it thus and this is what you see. Nothing.”
Of course, anybody who saw “The Audience” already knew that.
But back to the smarmy appeal of “King Charles III,” since Bartlett has had the audacity to suggest that Queen Elizabeth II will actually die, what if that fateful day happens during the Broadway run of this play? Do they shut it down out of respect? Or just give the actors and crew a few days off out of respect? A Wednesday matinee ought to be enough.