I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world.
—Charles I, on the scaffold
The most reactionary thing about King Charles III, the modern Shakespeare pastiche playing through March 18 at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC, is that nobody kneels to the king.
Charles, written by Mike Bartlett and directed by David Muse, takes place in the near future, between the obsequies for Queen Elizabeth II and the coronation of her successor. Bartlett imagines a Prince of Wales who has been unwittingly training himself for dictatorial self-assertion. His conscience—and perhaps also his resentment of the long years waiting for the throne—propels him into a conflict with Parliament over a bill to restrict the tabloid news. No side escapes morally unscathed from the spiral of escalating norm-violations that ensues, and by the play's climax the British government seems on the verge of collapse.
Bartlett has hold of a strong central idea, and he plays it out through satisfying twists. The Shakespearean touches are sometimes fun—Prince Harry as the clown who knows he's been relegated to “a life of humorous periphery”—though the ghost (there's a ghost!) is not much more than a plot device and a winking reference.
The verse is, frankly, workaday. The few extended metaphors are usually charming, the iambs about Gollum and the GPS, but they're not exactly piercing in their insight. For the most part everyone in this play does the awful modern scriptwriting thing where they just say whatever they think and feel. It's like being stuck in a room full of Fortinbras.
That probably inevitable disappointment aside, the play's plot holds the unexpected insights too little present in its dialogue. The characters don't seem to know what, if anything, the monarchy still offers Great Britain. The kingdom is compared to a doner kebab: If you slice off the Empire, slice off the Queen, and wiggle your knife under the edge of the National Health Service, what's left? So the monarchy has to stay, because it preserves some link with the past (I can hear Eamon Duffy cackling from here), some vestige of stability.
In this argument Charles plays the Baby Boomer (born 1948) who plays Jenga with civilization and doesn't know why his children blame him for the rubble. Although Charles claims to be acting out of conscience, he acts without humility. I was forcefully reminded of both Matthew Schmitz's review of The Young Pope and Ross Douthat's comparison of the governing styles—despite their radically different substantive policy goals—of Pope Francis and President Trump.
But there are deeper insights here than these generational resentments. Charles notes that his mother gained her influence and authority from the Blitz: her ration book marked “Her Royal Highness Princess Elizabeth,” her work as a truck mechanic for the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service. Richard III was the last English king to die in battle, and James II the last to mark Maundy Thursday by washing the feet of the poor; but the current Queen did in her day live out the monarchic ideals of service, vulnerability, and shared sacrifice.
Charles, in Charles III, starts off accepting humble roles, such as serving tea to visitors, but soon rejects them. Even when the royals in this play do make acts of personal service, they serve only politicians, not needy subjects. (The real Prince William, it's worth noting, has worked as an air ambulance pilot.) When these characters consider living like common people they think of that as freedom rather than a duty of shared sacrifice.
The sole remaining source of authority, in the world of the play, is vulnerability. Some of this vulnerability is physical: Late in the play, William, Duke of Cambridge, gains new authority in the eyes of the people by quietly defying a tank. (In reality, though this is only fleetingly mentioned in Charles III, Prince Harry served two tours of duty in Afghanistan.) But primarily these royals suffer the assaults not of Lancaster pikes or of Luftwaffe bombs, but of the flashbulbs of the British press. There are frequent references to Princess Diana's death, pursued by paparazzi. The royals offer themselves up as sacrificial celebrities, their private lives the property of the people. Instead of kneeling, one commoner reaches out to touch Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge: It's really you! I'm petting a star!
The most scathing portrayal in King Charles III is not that of its thwarted, raging title character, who by the very end of the play has managed to gain a certain tragic grandeur, but of the British people. They demand not justice, not freedom, not beauty or holiness, but 24/7 celebrity news, gossip, and revenge porn: an empire on which Page Three of the Sun never sets.
Charles at least has his conscience. Everybody else has only stability. The Shakespeare Theatre's staging is lovely, all liturgical shadow and Gothic statuary watching anxiously from above. There's a stone bishop; it will be very late in the day before we see a real priest here. Until the coronation scene, the only reference to religion is when Harry's republican girlfriend declares that she's studying “the relationship between Islam and pornography.”
At the coronation, there is finally kneeling. At last somebody makes a physical gesture of submission, of surrender to some transcendent good, some unity of rightness and power. It is beautiful, showstopping, and brazenly insincere.
Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker living in Washington, D.C.