Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s annual non-Shakespeare play, Mike Bartlett's King Charles III: A Future History Play, may be contemporary, but it echoes the Bard. Written in a flexible blank verse, the play deals with the current English royalty, palace intrigue and lust for power, tradition versus rebellion, and the relationship between royalty and the populace.
Director Kevin Rich points out that there’s even a ghost — Princess Diana — who, like many Shakespearean ghosts, may be a destructive force or a representative of justice. The play takes place in a fictional future England, where the real Prince Charles has finally managed to ascend to the throne — and as king, he’s determined to make some changes — specifically, he's after more than symbolic power.
I grew up in England, and in our history books, kings and queens wielded unlimited power. They could order invasions, banish and persecute the official Catholic Church, oppress the peasantry in all kinds of creative ways, and order the heads of enemies struck from their shoulders. But we also learned that though there is nothing in writing that constrains the power of the current monarchy — no constitution, no ruling on the rights of the people beyond the ancient Magna Carta — the institution has been modified by years of tradition and custom and is now almost purely symbolic.
In Bartlett’s play, King Charles III defies convention by refusing to sign a bill put before him by the prime minister. From one perspective, he’s in the right because the bill restricts freedom of the press. From another, he’s horribly in the wrong, taking a dangerous step away from democracy and toward absolute power. Soon the people are out in the streets and a constitutional crisis has developed.
“I love how Shakespeare disappears into his plays and takes every point of view,” says Rich. “We don’t immediately know what side we would take. There’s space for us to make those connections for ourselves.”
King Charles III will probably play differently for an American audience than for an English one, even though, as Rich points out, Americans “have some familiarity with the characters.” Many still have strong feelings about Diana. They know Charles and Camilla, Kate and William, as well as Harry — who wasn’t married to Meghan Markle when the play was written but who the playwright, with some prescience, has falling in love with a young woman who’s both black and working-class.
For many Americans, the most compelling part of the evening may be the story of a ruler who defies, ignores or overthrows all norms, as President Donald Trump has done again and again. Trump deploys dangerously vitriolic tweets against anyone who questions him; defies congressional subpoenas; profits financially from the presidency and refuses to divest from his business interests; places ludicrously unqualified people, including relatives, in positions of power; questions press independence; and has historians, lawyers and analysts frantically and continually exploring just what is or isn’t within a president’s purview.
Among the questions Brits are more likely than most Americans to ponder during the play is the place of the monarchy in the modern world. The institution may be merely symbolic now, but kings and queens have historically played a powerful role in the British imagination. Some English people still mention with deep affection the gallant behavior of George VI and Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who refused to flee the country during the devastating bombardment of World War II, choosing to risk their lives along with other Londoners. “The children will not leave unless I do,” wrote Elizabeth. “I shall not leave unless their father does, and the king will not leave the country in any circumstances, whatever.” The 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II provided a genuine moment of celebration, pomp and color in a still war-decimated nation, and to this day, you’ll find coronation mugs on the shelves of loyal elderly Britons.
But for many younger people, the royals are expensive parasites, and the monarchy is absurdly outdated. Though for others the magic is regularly renewed whenever a pretty young woman marries a prince or extrudes a healthy, rosy-cheeked baby.
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In King Charles III, Charles relies on ancient custom to assert his will; Harry is torn because his new love is fervently against the monarchy; and while William and Kate are popular with younger generations, they remain staunch monarchists.
“It’s been wonderful how well Charles III has played in America,” says Rich, adding that there have been some changes to the original script, particularly to “pop culture references and British brands and foods.”
No one knows what kind of king Prince Charles, now seventy, would be. He’s promised not to meddle in politics. But since he recently annoyed Donald Trump by lecturing him about climate change, many of us are rather hoping he will.
King Charles III: A Future History Play, presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 11, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-8008, cupresents.org.