Listen

A New Kind Of Tragic Prince In 'King Charles III'

Nov 3, 2015

Imagine Queen Elizabeth II has died, and her son Charles has become king. Now, imagine that his first act as king is to refuse to sign a bill restricting the freedom of the press. What would the repercussions be for England? Now, imagine this story is told like a Shakespearean tragedy, mostly in verse — and you'll have King Charles III, a new "future history" play that's just opened on Broadway to rave reviews.

It begins with the cast, all in black, walking onstage carrying candles. They're singing a requiem for Queen and country.

"What is it to be British, to be English?" wonders actor Tim Pigott-Smith, who plays the title character in King Charles III. "Maybe it's just the Queen. In the context of the play, the way the play develops, you do feel that everything really is falling apart."

Right after he ascends the throne, Charles precipitates a national crisis when he refuses to sign a bill into law, says playwright Mike Bartlett. "And that was a good idea, but it only became a play when I thought, well, wait — he should be a Shakespearean tragic hero and the form of the play should be a Shakespeare play."

That's right — most of King Charles III is written in iambic pentameter."Having a Shakespearean form means you can do things you can't do in a normal play," Bartlett says. "Characters can turn to the audience and use long metaphors to describe their psychology in a really entertaining way, you can have ghosts and high drama and going between all strata of society; going from the kings right down to the poorly paid workers."

There are deep parallels between Shakespeare's time and now, says the play's director, Rupert Goold. "Shakespeare's history plays were his affirmation of nation, leading up to a period of great anxiety, which was Queen Elizabeth's death; when, of course, the whole nation had no idea what was going to happen, literally, to the country after Queen Elizabeth died. And it's interesting that our history play arrives, probably, at a similar moment with our own Elizabeth!"

But Elizabeth II is now England's longest reigning monarch. And actor Pigott-Smith says that means Charles has waited his entire life to ascend the throne.
"There's one wonderful speech, when he says 'I'd always hoped, as crown, I'd have some small but crucial influence upon the state I've given all my working life to serve.' And it's awful to him that it's not working out that way. And he says, twice he says, 'But what am I?'"

What he's been, in real life, is the victim of a merciless media. Yet in the play, he refuses to restrict its freedom. Royal manipulation of the media also plays an important part in King Charles III — some of the biggest dramatic moments happen in front of the cameras. And perhaps the most media savvy, ambitious and Machiavellian character is Charles' daughter-in-law, the former Kate Middleton, played by Lydia Wilson.

"She says, interestingly, 'we're told the world's a play of surfaces,'" Wilson says. "I don't think it matters whether she believes that or not, but she at least knows that's the currency we deal with; deal in images and no recourse to interiority or complexity or dualities in a person. And I personally feel like she also knows that that's a sort of tragic place to be, but given that that's the way it is, she's not going to become a victim of that; she's going to be on top of it and be aware of it and how to manipulate that reality."

And that ability to manipulate the perception of the monarchy may be its greatest strength in the 21st Century, says director Goold.

"Our sense of nationhood is arguably more defined by cultural factors, like the monarchy or the Beatles, than it can now be by government, because after all, who runs our sense of self more, Rupert Murdoch or David Cameron?"
Don't forget, once it was William Shakespeare.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Here's a literary tale of another sort. Imagine Queen Elizabeth II has died and Prince Charles has become king. His first act as king is to refuse to sign the bill restricting the freedom of the press. And now imagine the same story told mostly in verse. Well, that's the setting of "King Charles III," which has just opened to rave reviews on Broadway. Here's Jeff Lunden.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: The play begins with a cast all in black walking onstage, carrying candles.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "KING CHARLES III")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing, unintelligible).

LUNDEN: They're singing a requiem for the queen and country.

TIM PIGOTT-SMITH: What is it to be British, to be English? Maybe it's just the queen.

LUNDEN: Tim Pigott-Smith plays the title character in "King Charles III."

PIGOTT-SMITH: In the context of the play, the way the play develops, you do feel that everything really is falling apart.

LUNDEN: Right after he ascends the throne, Charles precipitates a national crisis.

MIKE BARTLETT: What would happen if he refused to sign a bill into law? And that was a good idea, but it only became a play when I thought, well, wait; he should be a Shakespearean tragic hero, and the form of the play should be a Shakespeare play.

LUNDEN: That's right, says playwright Mike Bartlett. Most of "King Charles III" is written in iambic pentameter. And, he adds...

BARTLETT: Having a Shakespearean form means you can do things you can't do in a normal play. Characters can turn to the audience and use long metaphors to describe their psychology, and you can have ghosts and high drama and going between all strata of society.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "KING CHARLES III")

PIGOTT-SMITH: (As Charles III) In every second since my mother passed, I'm trapped by meetings. All these people ask me questions - talking, fussing, what to do, expect I have opinion - rare - all good to go.

(LAUGHTER)

PIGOTT-SMITH: (As Charles III) Like Finder's Ready Meals for One, pre-wrapped and frozen. This is what I think as if I know.

LUNDEN: There are deep parallels between Shakespeare's time and now, says the play's director, Rupert Goold.

RUPERT GOOLD: Shakespeare's history plays were his affirmation of nation leading up to a period of great anxiety, which was Queen Elizabeth's death when, of course, the whole nation had no idea what was going to happen, literally, to the country after Queen Elizabeth died. And it's interesting that our history play arrives (laughter), probably, at a similar moment with our own Elizabeth.

LUNDEN: But Elizabeth II is now England's longest-reigning monarch. And actor Tim Pigott-Smith says that means Charles has waited his entire life to ascend the throne.

PIGOTT-SMITH: There's one wonderful speech when he says, I'd always hoped as crown I'd have some small but crucial influence upon the state I'd given all my working life to serve. And it's awful to him that it's not working out that way. And he says twice - he says, what am I?

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "KING CHARLES III")

PIGOTT-SMITH: (As Charles III) My mother gained respect for what she'd seen - the blitz. She sat with Churchill and met all the most important figures of her years. But what am I?

LUNDEN: What he's been in real life is the victim of a merciless media. Yet in the play, he refuses to restrict its freedom. Royal manipulation of the media also plays an important part in "King Charles III." Some of the biggest dramatic moments happen in front of the cameras. And perhaps the most media savvy, ambitious and Machiavellian character is Charles's daughter-in-law, the former Kate Middleton.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "KING CHARLES III")

LYDIA WILSON: (As Kate Middleton) I have ambition for my husband, yes, and hope my son will grow the finest king. But if I must put up with taunts and make so public everything I am, then I demand things for myself. I ask no less than power to achieve my will in fair exchange for total service to the state.

LUNDEN: Lydia Wilson plays Kate.

WILSON: She says, interestingly, we're told the world' a play of surfaces. I don't think it matters whether she believes that or not, but she at least knows that that's the currency we deal with, dealing images no recourse to interiority or complexity or dualities in a person. And I personally feel like she also knows that that's a sort of tragic place to be. But given that that's the way it is, she's not going to become a victim of that. She's going to be on top of it and be aware of it in how to manipulate that reality.

LUNDEN: And that ability to manipulate the perception of the monarchy may be its greatest strength in the 21st century, says director Rupert Goold.

GOOLD: Our sense of nationhood is arguably more defined by cultural factors like the monarchy or The Beatles than it can now be by government because after all, who runs our sense of self more - Rupert Murdoch or David Cameron?

LUNDEN: Don't forget. Once, it was William Shakespeare. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "KING CHARLES III")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing, unintelligible). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.