In Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III: A Future History Play , currently in a regional premiere as part of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s summer lineup, Queen Elizabeth II has died, and Prince Charles — who’s past seventy— has ascended to the throne. He’s grieving for his strong, competent mother, and at the same time trying to decide who he is now, both in his private life and as the king of England. It’s a position he’s achieved after years of waiting, during which the real Charles weathered the ugly breakup of his marriage to Princess Diana and the storm of public condemnation that followed her death; worried about the well-being of their two sons; finally married his longtime love, Camilla; spoke out on issues such as architecture and organic gardening; and chafed at his inability to actually help the poor and suffering of his country — including immigrants.
Much of our view of the monarchy has been shaped by Shakespeare, and according to the Elizabethan concept of the Great Chain of Being, the monarch represents God himself. And yet in today’s England, the king or queen has only symbolic power. Which means that poor Charles III is by turns puzzled, angry, idealistic, petty and kindly, though always fully human. And every now and then, the spirit of his ancestors moves through him and he becomes brilliantly regal. It takes a terrific actor to express all of this, and the festival had the great luck to secure John Hutton — long a favorite at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts — for the role of Charles, which he fills to perfection. There’s also fine work by Emily Van Fleet as a far-tougher-than-she-looks Catherine, and Casey Andree as Catherine’s husband, Prince William. Under the directorial hand of Kevin Rich, the pacing is clean and strong and most of the acting fine — though every now and then there’s an English accent in a smaller role that’s bad enough to set your teeth on edge.
Bartlett’s play is Shakespearean — spoken mostly in blank verse, featuring soliloquies addressed to the audience and an ambiguously predictive ghost. Echoes of Shakespeare’s work add depth and contour to the action on stage. When Charles confronts the fractious parliament, he could be Henry V urging his men into battle. When he feels stripped of his power, we remember the bitter grief of the deposed Richard II as he collapses onto the roadside dust and addresses his followers: “I live with bread, like you, feel want/Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus/How can you say to me I am a king?” Charles is betrayed by his children, as Lear was by his daughters. And who’d have thought that healthy, wholesome Catherine would turn out to be a true Lady Macbeth when faced with her family’s possible loss of the crown?
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As in Shakespeare, royalty mingles with the commoners. In this case it’s red-haired son Harry, who chafes at the formality of royal life and falls in love with a young black woman, the outspoken anti-royalist Jess. Despite Charles’s warmth toward her (a striking contrast to the real royal family’s unwelcoming attitude toward Diana), Jess ends up demonstrating against the crown in the streets. Shakespearean jockeying for power? Check. Family feuds? Check. And, of course, a chanting revolutionary mob.
But the play is also very modern, giving audiences many ideas to chew on: the uses of power, and its corruption; tradition versus modernity; centrism and radicalism; freedom of the press and the abuse of that freedom by, for example, the Murdoch media empire. There’s also the way that England’s Labour Party, like the Democratic Party here, has moved steadily toward the right.
This multi-leveled, thought-provoking and deeply involving production rounds out one of the Shakespeare Festival’s best seasons. Don't miss it.
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.