Sometimes I feel like I am just a curmudgeon with a sharp contrarian streak. And then there are times when I can’t believe that the rest of the world seems to have been taken in by a piece of crap. (See also Downton Abbey and A Little Life) In the case of Mike Barlett’s play King Charles III, it might be a bit of the former and a lot of the latter.
Bartlett could have had an interesting idea–at his accession to the throne, the new King Charles provokes a constitutional crisis–but the playwright was not up to the job. At almost every level, the details of the plot and the development of the characters are facile and cliché.
1. The play is only three years old but seems wildly out of date. Not only because of Brexit and Trump, but tired tropes about each of the characters would have seemed out of date in 2014 as well. Barlett’s understanding of the royal family seems to be stuck somewhere between Diana’s death (1997) and Prince Harry’s Nazi costume (2005), or if I’m being generous, to his Vegas escapades (2012). None of this would be a problem if this was a history play, but it is a flash forward, and the lens through which the flash forward was written seems stuck in another era.
2. Not knowing anything about the play ahead of time, I was convinced very early in the proceedings that the playwright was American or had written it for an American audience. Not only does Bartlett explain a lot of things that shouldn’t need explaining but he isn’t always accurate or believable. For instance would Kate really not know that the monarch becomes the monarch immediately upon the death of the previous monarch? In the play they have to explain to her that Charles is already the king despite not having had a coronation yet. Growing up in the UK and spending years prepping to be the wife of a future king and Kate doesn’t know that little tidbit? Even when the story of Elizabeth II becoming queen while in a tree house in Kenya has achieved mythic status over the decades. Could she also be completely unaware of “The King is dead, long live the King”.
There are also a few scenes where Harry is beguiled with real life outside the palace and waxes rhapsodic about things like Doritoes and Burger King and TGI Fridays as if he is experiencing them for the first time. A casual observer and certainly someone writing a play about the royal family would know that Diana exposed her children to the real world every chance she got, taking them to McDonalds and homeless shelters and everyplace in between. Plus, you can’t allude to Harry’s Las Vegas binge (as Bartlett does) and then act like Harry has never left the palace grounds.
These are superficial quibbles (and there are many more of them), but I also had major issues with the motivations and actions of many of the characters. I was rolling my eyes so much I felt like Liz Lemon.
3. The constitutional crisis Charles provokes is based on his refusal to sign off on a law that would curtail freedom of the press. The issue seems random and poorly chosen by Bartlett because of what happens next. Charles dissolves Parliament–a moment where I thought the play might actually be going somewhere–but then we are supposed to believe that the people are upset with him and rioting in the streets. I think anti-monarchy republicans would have been upset by the meddling of the king, but they would also likely have been very supportive of Charles for standing up for press freedom. Not to mention the opposition party in Parliament would have seized the opportunity, instead they fall in line behind the ruling party. I’m also not convinced that William, Kate, and Harry would have been so intent on maintaining the role, or existence, of the monarchy as staunchly as they do. Bartlett plays into the sympathies of those in Britain who think the line of succession should skip over Charles. A ridiculous notion for those who believe in the ridiculous notion that the line of succession is ordained by God.
4. Barlett can’t quite figure out if the literal specter of Diana in the play is serious or funny. It ends up being neither. I think that Diana mania has softened a great deal in the 20 years since her death. It’s still there, but it doesn’t necessarily automatically equate to a dislike of Charles or even Camilla as it once did. William and Harry have moved on with their lives and have accepted their father’s wife. The public might be less accepting, but the advent of Kate and her children have done much to refocus the Diana fervor. The residual reverence or respect William still has for his mother seems unlikely to manifest itself in the very pro-status quo of William’s actions in the play. And do I think Charles is still haunted by Diana? No. He didn’t kill her and he didn’t create the paparazzi posse that did. He may have guilt about how he handled his relationship with her, but with some good therapy, I hope he has moved on from whatever guilt he may have felt over her death.
5. There have been far better fictional depictions of the current royal family (both Helen Mirren vehicles, The Uncommon Reader, The Crown, etc.) that provide too stark a contrast with this messed up jumble of ideas for it to have any credibility. How it has managed the success it has is beyond my comprehension.