King Charles III has all the hallmarks of a Shakespearean history play, one that tells that sad truth that "Monarchs should be seen and not heard." But what does it say about the United Kingdom that it insists on telling the tale of the end of our second Elizabethan age era with the trappings usually reserved for a first Elizabethan aged production?
Paul: "Since she died, the world's gone mad, I swear. Every night people have this look... And it's like they're terrified. They don't know where they live. They don't know what Britian is."
King Charles III. The title alone brings to mind Shakepearean dramas as Henry V, or Richard II. But the similiarities don't just end with the title. There are ghosts giving prophecies, two-faced courtiers, and ambitious family members ready to stab the king in the back, all written in blank verse. That a play that channels the insecurities brought about by the coming inevitable end of the Second Elizabethean Age would use all the trappings of Shakespeare, the greatest playwright of the first, is interesting. That was a time when the monarchy was at the height of power. Yet this is a tale that seems to say "monarchs should be seen and not heard."
Any story built upon such a twisted foundation is going to have issues standing upright for any length of time, no matter how well the walls are constructed, or how great the individual performances given. Charles is played by the late Tim Pigott-Smith, who originated the role back in 2014. His performance anchors everything, from the first soliloquy to the camera after his mother's funeral, through to his abdication in favor of William and Kate, holding up the great parts for all to see, while pinning down the far flimsier sections, lest they fly away on their own fancy.
His first act as King, even before the coronation, is supposed to be signing a recent bill, restricting Freedom of the Press. Said bill has already been passed by both Houses--his signature, like his mother's before him, is merely a formality to make it law. But unlike Elizabeth, who always assented to the will of the people, Charles has Opinions--namely that restricted the press is bad. (The Prime Minister is stunned--of all the people who one would think would want the press controlled a little better, it's the man whose first wife was hounded to death by them.) But Charles feels so strongly that he wants the bill rewritten before he will sign. He is, after all, King. His Opinion should count yes?
Actually, no. The stand off leads to Parliament moving to pass another law--one that will strip this formality of this "Royal Assent" from the Palace. But before they can vote, Charles arrives in the House, and dissolves Parliament by royal decree, ushering in anarchy in the streets, as the people revolt against this obvious anti-democractic action.
Charles: The Queen did not, in all her years bethroned, face laws like this to pass.
Prime Minister: I do agree. For in her time she faced far greater revolution--when she lost an empire.
The other major stand out performance is Charlotte Riley as Kate Middleton. The script's portrayal of the popular princess is controversial, casting her as the brains and ambition of the family. She's also the only character besides Charles to have a soliloquy to the audience. When Charles refuses to sign the bill, she is the only member of the Royal Family who tunes in to BBC's rolling news to watch the debates in Parliament over Royal Assent--allowing us to be tuned in to see when Charles walks in and dissolves that austere body live on TV. (A genuinely striking moment, both for Pigott-Smith's performance, and for the lawmakers scrambling around in real time trying to figure out if the King can actually do that.) She is the one inviting the Prime Minister out to see her husband, in order to get him to do something about his father's behavior. She even has the Nanny release little George to run to his father's arms at the right time, just to remind him what's at stake here.
As William, Oliver Chris takes a while to get going, but once his wife pushes him down the hill he steps up. Charles is horrified by Will's idea of what being King is--a pretty aspirational picture of the benign family, meaningless in practice. And this is where the plot seems to lose the thread of what it wants to say. Charles is clearly supposed to be doing the right thing--standing up for freedom of the press and all that. But in doing so, he's going against the teachings and practices of his mother, who was a steady, but above all, silent presence throughout her 60+ years on the throne. Kate is clearly scheming to get on the throne, but there's almost a question of why, as it's one that has no power. The script may want to side with Charles, but in the end, the message is that one can attempt to actually be king and rule, but in the 21st century, one won't last long. The crown should go to royals who know their place and are willing to play it without complaint.
The script makes sops to the idea that Will and Harry are "Diana's boys", but in practice shows them to be Elizabeth's heirs. Indeed, Di is reduced here to nothing but a ghost going around telling anyone who happens by that they'll be a great king. As Camilla, Margot Leicester doesn't have a lot to do either, unfortunately, but when she does get a chance to start slapping people, she at least goes at it with gusto. She and Charles rail against William and Kate and their coup, but once Harry comes out of nowhere and weighs in and tells dad he's on Will's side, all the air goes out of Charles. He's not willing to lose his family just to be king.
Charles: I will be king as ruler, not as doormat, stepped across.
Harry's story is a different problem altogether. On stage, one can get away with telling us Harry and his commoner girlfriend, Jess, are falling in love, and all this is happening off in the wings somewhere because we don't want to show them having sex, nor do we have the budget to show them having nights on the town. In a film, one has to show these things. Even a 90 second montage would have helped. Otherwise, all it does is undercut any hope we have of believing they're having a relationship at all.
Then there's the conceit that Harry would go into full-scale rebellion, falling in love with Jess and insisting on giving up his role as Prince to be with her. The problem here is that the story has scenes that are uncannily close to real life--Jess' ex-boyfriend leaks old sexts to the The Sun and The Mirror. Harry's actual commoner girlfriend, Meghan Markle, went through a version of the same scandal last fall. The front page of the tabloid here even uses the same column inches where the Markle story ran. But that callback to real life only heightens how unbelievable it is that anyone would just agree to him stepping down as Prince. More importantly, Harry then suddenly does an about-face, and dumps her anyway. The notion that "for stability's sake" he would be made to play the "harmless ginger jester", forcing him to give up the girl to appease Will and Kate, is not comprehending what it claims they stand for--that silent apolitical benign life we all should aspire to. (In fact, in reality the Palace is right now bearing down on getting Harry engaged post haste to Markle--using Pippa Middleton's wedding as her pre-engagement debut--in hopes that they have both Princes married and settled before Elizabeth passes into memory.)
By play's end, the royal family may have settled once more in the minds of the people, but watching King Charles III is a reminder that in reality the anxiety at what comes next runs high. What is settled in the minds of the people of the United Kingdom is that the first Elizabethan age was great, and that things that call back to that--including this production--carry weight. Perhaps one day, history will be able to look back on our own Elizabethan age and feel the same.
If you missed King Charles III, you can watch it streaming online at WETA.org.