There’s a lot to like about Arizona Theatre Company’s production of British playwright Mike Bartlett’s future history play “King Charles III.” The premise is interesting, the acting is fantastic, the aesthetic is appealing (albeit austere), and it explores the ideas of political power, personal responsibility, and the tangled interactions and personalities within the Royal Family in a way that is both entertaining and thought-provoking.
The play opens at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, and Charles contemplating his imminent ascension to the throne. Camilla, William, Kate and Harry have gathered among advisers and extended Royal Family, and as the cast faces the audience for the somber service, their physical resemblance to the real people is impressive – with the notable exception of Charles. Actor Peter Van Norden’s imposing, avoirdupois figure contrasts with the tall, thin, prominently-eared Prince Charles. But he plays the part with nobility, grace, and conscience, making Charles a surprisingly sympathetic figure as he pores over history books and paces the floor, wrestling with his conscience about whether or not to sign a law that would severely inhibit freedom of the press in order to maintain a tradition of cooperation with parliament, or to set a precedent and withhold his signature while demanding the bill be rewritten. Throughout the course of the 120-minute (with an intermission) play, King Charles sets a few precedents. (No spoilers.)
Subplots allow for a touch of comedy (and perhaps a splash of soap opera-drama, as well), especially when it comes to Harry, played broodingly well by Dylan Saunders. A punk rock vibe shakes things up visually – some cast members with bright blue and purple hair double as street protestors and palace staff members, donning slick business coats with zipper-covered skinny jeans or black leather pants. Snippets of songs from England’s 1970s punk rock scene (The Jam’s “In the City,” “London Calling” by The Clash) play between scenes. Stage sets are stark – just a handful of moving backdrops made to resemble castle walls, a couple rolling blue couches, and a few giant golden crowns hanging overhead. All the drama is achieved through the characters, the lighting, and the dialogue – a crisp and curious blend of modern and archaic English. “King Charles III” is written in blank verse, and the playwright patterned it after Shakespearean historical plays. Some of The Bard’s best-used devices -- the appearance of a ghost, the wives of men in power pushing them to do things – appear here in obvious parallels.
The first half of “King Charles III” can be painfully slow-going. That might be the main flaw in an otherwise engaging theatre experience. Conversations between characters – especially the discussions between King Charles and Prime Minister Evans regarding the bill – probably go on for several minutes more than they should, slowing down any sense of suspense about the end of the first half – which actually brings a gasp-worthy surprise (again, no spoilers). The second half of the play, which was quite noticeably shorter than the first, was full of vigor and – finally – the absurdities the premise was pregnant with all along.
Provocative and popular, “King Charles III” has been deemed “a riveting study of the monarchy,” “a must-see,” and “worth seeing. And then seeing again” in previous theatre reviews by media. We agree with the first two assessments. The third, maybe not. Unless we take an early bathroom break in the middle of the first half.
Arizona Theatre Company’s Production of “King Charles III”
Herberger Theater Center
Through October 23
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