Following last season's staging of The Audience, the Arts Club continues its Stanley stage love affair with recent British plays about the royal family. On now through mid-November is Mike Bartlett's King Charles III. Cleverly written in blank verse and with all manner of Shakespearean references, the play imagines an all too real crisis of succession that just might ensue following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. In the days after his mummy's funeral and leading up to his official coronation, Charles (Ted Cole) starts not just to believe in, but to act upon, his droit du seigneur. In his first official meeting with the sitting Labour Party Prime Minister, Mr. Evans (Simon Webb, channelling Jeremy Corbyn, albeit in more sharply tailored suits), Charles queries a new bill that will soon come before him for royal assent. The bill applies restrictions on the freedom of the press and despite his own family's private life having been mercilessly subjected to the muckraking of the UK's notorious tabloid press, Charles believes that the bill is fundamentally flawed. Be that as it may, Evans instructs Charles that it is his duty to sign the bill, for not to do so would run counter to hundreds of years of ceremonial convention and undermine the very foundations of Britain's parliamentary democracy. However, receiving the Tory leader of the opposition, Mrs. Stevens (Christine Willes), immediately after Mr. Evans, Charles latches on to her not at all disinterested statement that, as King, it is his prerogative not to sign the bill.
Things escalate when, incensed by the Crown's usurpation of parliament's democratically elected power, Mr. Evans introduces a new bill that would eliminate the requirement for royal assent for all future legislation. Once again at the prompting of Mrs. Stevens, Charles exercises his power to dissolve parliament and call for new elections, alienating the populace and throwing the country into a constitutional crisis. Meanwhile, inside Buckingham Palace there is additional intrigue. Prince Harry (Charlie Gallant, sporting a bad ginger dye job) moons over the free-spirited commoner Jess (Agnes Tong), whose past will soon be splashed all over the pages of the press that Charles has lately come to defend. The ambitious Kate (Katherine Gauthier, a dead ringer for the Duchess of Cambridge), sensing an opening, does her best Lady Macbeth in convincing William (Oliver Rice) to force his father's hand, with the abdication that inevitably follows leading to William's coronation instead of Charles'.
Not everything in Bartlett's play works. I found the conceit of having Diana's ghost (Lauren Bowler) appear to both Charles and William somewhat clunky, and the character of Camilla (Gwynyth Walsh) was curiously marginalized. The final scene's pageantry and tying up of loose plot lines also tends to foreclose upon any tragic pathos we might feel for Charles as a fallen protagonist, his brief "hollow crown" speech not enough of an emotional punctuation to the play's larger themes--especially when, as in this staging, the blackout that follows seems to come almost as an afterthought. But Bartlett's plotting is absolutely gripping, not least because of his success in making us believe that this scenario could indeed be something that comes to pass. He also pulls off the use of blank verse, successfully adapting its rhythms to contemporary colloquial speech while also showcasing passages of beautiful poetic interiority in many of the characters' soliloquies to the audience. The character of Charles is also richly complex, someone who is at once Machiavellian and idealistically naive, a little bit Richard III and a lot Richard II. That Bartlett is channeling both the Houses of Lancaster and York in his portrait of the divided Windsors is to be expected, but it's his wider allusions to the corpus of Shakespeare (including King Lear) that make the work even more satisfying.
Unfortunately, director Kevin Bennett's production does not always elevate the text in equally rich ways. The performances are uneven, with several actors having trouble speaking the verse. Some of the blocking choices are bewildering, especially when one character will stand in front of another downstage with his or her back to the audience. I also don't understand Bennett's penchant for upstage tableaux, often keeping his actors on stage as background figures to populate a scene. Sometimes it works, but mostly it's distracting and looks ridiculous, as when the company, in black trench coats, pulses in a line to techno music while Harry and Jess have a moment in a London club. The fourth wall is broken from the very start of the play, when the entire company does a version of a royal walkabout, kibitzing with and waving to the audience while the house lights are still up. Those lights continue to come up during Charles' and other of the main characters' soliloquies. However, the choice to have Harry climb down from the stage and walk out into the audience during a nighttime scene with his brother doesn't seem to fit at all within such a dramatic world. I did enjoy Kevin McAllister's set, which manages to feel sparely modern and imposingly medieval at the same time. And Christopher Gauthier's costumes were a monarchist's delight, especially Camilla's hats.