CURTAIN CALLS: ‘King Charles III’ – Who’ll Stop the Reign?

Harry Smith as Prince Harry, Robert Joy as King Charles and Michelle Beck as Jessica in the American Conservatory Theater production of King Charles III, directed by David Muse.
Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne

After being dazzled for over seventeen years (like the simple girl I am) by the regularly sumptuous and top- drawer offerings of the Shakespeare Theatre Co., it is almost a relief to dislike a play as much as I dislike Mike Bartlett’s “King Charles III.”

That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its charms. The ceremonial scenes invoke British pomp at its best – those time-stopping interludes of soaring pageantry that transcend the cheapness of a slick and imitative media culture. Daniel Ostling’s scenic design is beyond reproach as well. Stone floors and towering stone walls with gothic windows harboring the imposing statues of ancient English kings set the tone of a thousand year old history still in the making.  Lap Chi Chu’s lighting creates its own moments of grandeur when an evening sun reflects on the faces of those impassive monarchs.

And Bartlett’s story – a fanciful musing on the not so far off future when the present Prince of Wales ascends his mother’s throne and becomes Charles III – that story has some interesting twists and, impossible not to suspect, Bartlett’s own projection of what he wishes would happen.  And what is that? You may politely ask. Charles, the only man on the planet to train for 68 years to get the job he was born to, creates a Constitutional crisis and then gets out of it by abdicating in favor of his son, William.  Unlike the first King Charles, however, he does not get beheaded.

There. Have I been nice enough? Given credit where credit was due? Good. Because here’s the rest.

What happens when a young lion playwright, television writer, screenwriter, and National Theatre writer-in-residence finds Tony nominations, Olivier awards, and Best New Play honors tossed at his feet along with roses and kisses from the critics? The inevitable: he thinks he’s the new Shakespeare. This is the only explanation I can glean for why “Charles III” was written in the familiar five-act Shakespearean form as well as a combination iambic pentameter and prose.  And of course a few references to our old favorites from the Bard – not one but two ghosts (Elizabeth and Diana) drifting in and out to predict the future, a party boy prince, and a main figure (see title) who waffles tragically between personal conviction and royal duty.

Even that wouldn’t necessarily create a deficit if it didn’t soar to heights of pretentiousness – granted, not hard to do when you imagine you’re the new Shakespeare.  David Muse directs, and allows Robert Joy as Charles to fling himself about the stage in a passion of royal despair as he declaims to the audience. This Charles comes off as confused, impotent – and short – and while bearing a faint resemblance to the real thing, has none of that famous reserve bred into him by a lifetime of tradition and well-earned distrust of the press.

Camilla (Jeanne Paulsen) is believable as the fiercely loyal partner except when evening comes and she is saddled with such lines as “I’ll to bed, my husband”.

And I have to say it. How does this glittering young playwright, a product of the English schools, write not once but three times such careless constructions as “stories about the prince and I” – especially when the faulty pronoun had no job to do in either rhyme or meter?

And then there’s Prince Harry. Don’t get me started. Harry Smith sifts the role of second son – the “spare” of “the heir and the spare” – and out comes a stiff half-wit who shouts his lines in an oafish monotone. He doesn’t want to be prince because money, privilege, etc., and because the self-assured little commoner, Jessica, (Michelle Beck) isn’t impressed with him and that makes him love her. Except for when he doesn’t and then wants to be prince again.

Fortunately there is some relief from all the histrionics as Prime Minister Evans (Ian Merrill Peakes) deals with the royal shenanigans like someone who remembers who he is. Prince William (Christopher McLinden) is tasked with standing by expectantly and looking paler than usual while the lovely Kate (Allison White) may or may not have anything to do with the coming abdication. Lady Macbeth, she isn’t.

I am, perhaps, a lone voice howling in the wilderness. The play seemed to get plenty of appreciation from the audience, indeed, “the rabblement hooted and clapped their chapped hands and threw up their sweaty night-caps…” For myself, I will join Jacques in railing against all the firstborn of Egypt.


Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.


What:  “King Charles III”

Where: Shakespeare Theatre Co., Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street, Washington, D.C.

Call: (202) 547-1122 or visit

Playing through March 12