“King Charles III” – a Marvelous Shakespeare Tragedy Not Written by Shakespeare

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King Charles IIIMusic Box Theatre
Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 King Charles III which is playing a limited run at the Music Box Theater in New York calls itself a “future history.”  Other might call it speculation and theater lovers are going to say it is a very enjoyable evening in the theater.

The play by Mike Bartlett envisions the time when the current Queen dies and her son, Charles, the Prince of Wales becomes King Charles III.  It is a position he has waited for all his life.  Unfortunately, as Bartlett sees it, his reign not only does NOT go smoothly but it all becomes a Shakespearean tragedy.

At the play’s opening, it is Elizabeth’s funeral and Charles is King.  But immediately he is faced with a dilemma. The current Prime Minister presents him with a bill passed by the House of Commons and Lords that in the name of protecting individual privacy eviscerates freedom or the press and other freedoms.  The press would be under strict government control. The monarch’s signature is a necessary to make the bill law, but, for hundreds of years, that is a pro forma event.

King Charles IIIMusic Box Theatre
Photo by Joan Marcus

Charles and his family have certainly had their privacy violated by the press over the years.  Most of us can remember some juicy and perhaps strange sexual comments from his hacked phone and other indignities.  But this Charles does not want to sign.  He views the bill as undermining basic liberty and allowing the government to lie and cover up abuses.  He tries to get the PM to review the bill and perhaps make some changes in it.  But the PM is adamant; Charles must sign the bill. Even the opposition leader, who has serious reservations about the bill, believes Charles must sign it.

So this is the set up for the play which, like Shakespeare, is written in iambic pentameter.  Bartlett has done that so well, and the cast is so at ease with it, that you will seldom be aware that it is verse.

Charles hits on a way to avoid signing the bill, but that has not been used in centuries when the King actually had power.  It causes public uproar (think of armed soldiers protecting Buckingham Palace) and a new set of problems.

Then there is the rest of the royal family.  Camilla tries to protect Charles

King Charles IIIMusic Box Theatre
Photo by Joan Marcus

while William and Kate see their chances – and their son’s chances – at the throne in jeopardy.  Harry falls in love with a socialist commoner art student and starts mingling with the common folk and decides he wishes no longer to be royal.

There’s even a ghost – of Diana, Charles’ first wife and mother of William and Harry – who tells both Charles and William that they will be the “greatest king ever.”

If you notice references to Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories, you are not wrong.  Charles in his quandary about signing or not signing the bill, recalls Hamlet.  (Depending on how you calculate the time span in Hamlet, the Danish Prince is either a young man or someone who has been waiting around for years for the throne.).  Kate displays definite Lady MacBeth qualities as she urges her husband to do more in confronting his father and solving the problem.  And the ghost of Diana is either Hamlet’s father or the witches of MacBeth, or perhaps both.

King Charles IIIMusic Box Theatre
Photo by Joan Marcus

Even Harry shows a resemblance to Prince Hal from King Henry IV, Part I, while his girl friend – and her friends – resemble the rabble rousers at any of the taverns that populate so many Shakespeare plays.

Bartlett has certainly drawn on some of the qualities we think we know about Charles – his tendency to get caught up in controversy (remember the flap when he criticized modern architecture), his interest in organic gardening and more.  He has also seemed to be someone who dithers though that may be due to his nebulous role.

Charles is in the same position as his great-great grandfather, Edward the VII, who had to wait until he was sixty to assume the throne following the death of his mother, Queen Victoria. He only held the throne for nine years before dying and being succeeded by his son, George V.

Charles is 68 years old. He has waited longer for the throne than any one; unlike Edward VII who became known for his many mistresses, Charles has tried to keep busy but he can only do what the Queen, his mother, permits him to do.

This production has been imported from London’s Almeida Theatre, where it won the Olivier award for best play last year, pretty much intact.

Tim Pigott-Smith is terrific as Charles, the man and King who is caught up in the machinations of everyone else as he tries to do what he feels is not only right but required by his conscience.  He is the center of the piece and the tragic hero. The cast is his equal – from Anthony Calf as the leader of the opposition to Adam James as the Prime Minister. Lydia Wilson plays Kate as cool, ambitious and manipulative and Oliver Chris shows us a William who is torn between loyalty to his father and dedication to protecting his own interests.  Richard Goulding shows us depths of Prince Harry that let us see not only the party boy but also the young man who knows he will always be in the shadows with a limited and often meaningless career;  too important to be able to do what he wants, but not important enough to do something significant. Jess  (Tafline Steen), Harry’s girl friend, is the life force who questions everything.

Director Rupert Goold has directed this ensemble piece – many of the cast members double in crowd scenes with a deft hand.  He has been assisted by the fine scenic and costume design by Tom Scutt, the lighting by Jon Clark, the sound by Paul Arditti and the music composed by Jocelyn Pook.

Do try to see King Charles III at the Music Box Theater on W. 45th Street, before it closes on Jan. 31. Tickets are available through Telecharge.

King Charles IIIMusic Box Theatre
Oliver Chris as William and Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles. Photo by Joan Marcus.


  1. He will probably rule as George VII – don’t know, therefore, why the play is called King Charles III

    1. The author obviously assumed he would reign as Charles III — and it ties in nicely with the history of the two previous Charles’. Neither had very successful reigns and one was ousted.

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