Wednesday 25 October 2017

King Charles III riffs on Brit monarchy rift

All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  In the original London production of KC3, the lithograph poster featured Charles with an outsize X-bandage taping his mouth shut. In the current ACT production, the artististic team out of Burnkit graphics in Vancouver's DTES depicts Charles with a crown too-big-by-half : gravity dictates the weight of the crown shutters his eyes and droops it unceremoniously on his royal proboscis.

Those graphics coupled with ACT's program teaser "The Jovial Political Satire -- Long Live the King?" -- while clever -- are nevertheless a bit of a miscue. We are expecting to kick back for a cheeky peek at all things House of Windsor. Instead we're treated to a serious-y soap opera. It starts with QE2 who has just launched to Heaven : playwright Mike Bartlett calls what follows "a future history play" with lots of ironic twists less lordly than rogue. Dialogue reveals she served 70 years. Thus the time-frame is 2023 or maybe a bit later.

No question this is a saucy little potboiler. In his first audience with Labour Prime Minister Tristan Evans (Simon Webb) we find Charles (Ted Cole) threatening to withold Royal Assent from a so-called "privacy bill" already passed in Parliament. The bill would give government invasive authority over UK media news. The free press would, in other words, be muzzled to "protect" the public's privacy. This act of bravado? foolishness? whim? by Charles to singlehandedly thwart or veto Parliament occurs even before he is officially installed on the throne through coronation : he is, foretellingly, the king in name only, an apprentice or acting king.

Whether from dithery or moral pique or hubris, Charles' motives are in full paradoxical view throughout the night. For their part Prince William (Oliver Rice) and Kate (Katherine Gauthier) fear Dad's brazen affront to ceremonial tradition will cost them the throne a few short paces up the road and will deny Georgie & Charlotte the silver spoon life. 

Prince Harry (Charlie Gallant), the ginger one, meanwhile, decides this is precisely the right time to spice matters up : he gets randy and raunchy with a commie-leaning commoner named Jessica Edwards (Agnes Tong). 

Prince Harry (Charlie Gallant) swaps a smooch with commoner Jess (Agnes Tong) while his unapproving Dad (Ted Cole) looks askance.
David Cooper photo.
What the show brings to the stage : Not many would disagree that the world's 40-some monarchies are all an anachronism whether individually or collectively. Not one enjoys much more than figurehead or ceremonial status. And yet they continue to grab at our imaginations : the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana's death produced a wodge of reminiscent publications, confessatorials by her sons, a mute run-for-cover by Chuck-&-Camilla.  

Anticipating this, playwright Bartlett includes repeated appearances for Diana (Lauren Bowler). Her troubled soul is footloose in KC3 -- clearly the show's leitmotif -- absolutely no question Diana remains a beguiling ghost who still haunts the family enclave at Kensington both in Bartlett's script and in real life. 

Back to KC3 the play. Notably Charles' interminable hand-wringing "What should I do, what should I do...?" -- like the script's chunks of dialogue in blank verse -- has powerful and purposeful links to Shakespeare. Almost as if Mr. Bartlett was channeling Billy Bard's most famous waffler, Hamlet. Never mind the "To be..." soliloquy, think instead how in a moment of existential insight Hamlet mused : "There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so." 

Good? Bad? Whatever. Fact is when the public learns of Charles' purpose-driven contretemps with Parliament, unrest descends into riots. Fleet Street, for its part, hunts Harry and his commoner lover Jess with the vicious zest of hyenas both in words and racy photos. Not to be outdone, the republicans and the monarchists and the rabble scratch and claw one another mercilessly under Buckingham's balconies trying to lay claim to both history and the future.

Plotting & canoodling, Kate (Katherine Gauthier) and Prince William (Oliver Rice) are not the smiley simpletons they sometimes seem. Well she, at least, is not.
David Cooper photo.
Sequestered in Buckingham, Charles may be stuck but he is not alone in his troubled and vexed cerebration. William & Kate do a lot of thinking, too, much of it outside the royal box. In the end they force a showdown with the king and wife Camilla (Gwyneth Walsh) that changes the monarchy in UK forever : whether for better or worse is left up-for-grabs. But it's done in a way only possible in a constitutional monarchy of British hue. (E.g. USA would not be capable of a similar political outcome : a ballot-box or military coup would be what they face.)

Script features that shine through : Much of the entertainment in this Bartlett script (writ when he was but 35) lies in two directions.

One the fact that these folks he writes about are facsimiles of the forever-public, forever-private royals : we see all the staged and rehearsed glitz-&-glamour, but we can only imagine their down-home dialogue. Still, suckers for them that we are, we drool over all the gossip that bridges the gaps. E.g. I can name no single Canadian friend who is not opinionated about Diana, Chuck & Camilla nor would anyone question whether '97 was truly annus horribilis or not. 

The other direction is the Shakespearean lilt of Bartlett's script : it's almost as if Tim Rice and Billy Bard got tiddly at The Old Thatch in Stratford and scritched out some of this stuff together :

Sometimes I must confess I 'magined if
My mother hap'ed to die before her term,
A helicopter crash, a rare disease
So at an early age I'd be in charge --
Before me years of constant stable rule.

Oh such delicious self-absorption, such delusion, such lofty piddle -- precisely the kind of cheesy curd many think Prince Chas. probably is at core. (Others say emphatically "Not so!" -- a warm, endearing and thoughtful chappy thru-&-thru they insist.)

King Charles (Ted Cole) stares wistfully at the crown that kept him "ling'ring" in Mom's shadow for decades. He'll discover with abject pain that his future as a royal won't be all ermine and gold braid.
David Cooper photo
Production values of note : Must start with a caution overheard from more than one ticket-buyer at Intermission. The 25-metre-wide Stanley Theatre stage is not chummy enough for this script. Many if not most of the scenes are 2- and 3- and 4-hander exchanges that take place downstage centre on a squatch of stage just 2-3 meters across and the same deep. That leaves too much parking space for the other actors to have to jockey about in : no way they can fill it up, much like the Carolina Hurricanes' hockey arena.

Other first-impression oddities : the royal family on stage before opening curtain as attendees at the Queen's funeral. They kibbitz with the audience members, wave to the cheap seat crowd up top and generally banter off-handedly and jump through the 4th wall to chum with folks. Seemed utterly awkward and contrived and out-of-character for royals.

On the costume side, diminutive as Simon Webb might be, outfitting him as the Prime Minister for the Queen's funeral in a bland off-the shelf skinny-version brown suit rather than in the customary all-black mourning ensemble was a visual clanger that rang loud. Only white sox would have made more noise.

These idiosyncrasies aside, Director Kevin Bennett manoeuvred imaginatively his cast of twelve (playing 22 characters) along the upstage scrim and in their crowd and chorus scenes. The spare set prop-wise with its oversize stockade palace gate the primary visual effect had punch. Regardless of being too-fat-by-far, the stage, symbolically, was adorned with a ginormous British flag underfoot that everyone involved trampled on all night long.

Acting pin-spots:  Good solid performances by the whole troupe, no exceptions. Ted Cole crafted a steady if bemused and engaging Chas 3 who quite likely does spend his time talking to the garden plants while sniggling out random sing-songs to cheer them up. His self-controlled engagement except when emotional with his two sons was as we would expect. For her part, a wholly Brava! capture of Diana by Lauren Bowler.

The show's Duchess Kate was utterly different from the Katherine Middleton on display in today's media : cunning and conniving and pushy and altogether Lady Macbeth-ish. As Camilla, similarly, not "of the horsey set" as the paparazzi and press like to peg her, Gwynyth Walsh was another grasping schemer like Kate, if less steely and more vulnerable.

Plenty of sexy beery fun between Charlie Gallant as Harry and Agnes Tong as Jess. His ghost-faced dismissal of her at play's end was somewhat scary : the power of royal politics can cut the heart in two. Finally, a wee shout-out to Christine Willes as Maude Stevens, the Maggie Thatcher wannabe character in voice and gesture and bluster. Fun to watch for sure.

Who gonna like :  As suggested, preliminary out-takes invited an expectation that there would be satire and silliness setting us up for giggles in this piece. Not in the least. The 19th century Crown legal advisor Walter Bagehot concluded that the monarch's roles vis-a-vis Parliament were simply three, no more : to be consulted, to encourage and to warn. Testing the limits of those roles was the subject matter here that played out quite seriously (see Addendum) : not much yuk-yuk in all this. 

Given the world faces a future that is less secure, less predictable, likely with fewer "better angels" at our beck and call -- given all of the political upheaval happening worldwide -- King Charles III embraces our brains and ties our guts into knots of recognition. The play's relentless foreboding makes for a contemplative and rewarding night of live theatre, no question.

Particulars : Written by Mike Bartlett. Original production London, 2014. Produced by Arts Club Theatre.  At the Stanley Theatre, Granville @ 11th.  On until November 19, 2017.  Run-time two-&-a-half hours including intermission.  Tickets & schedule information via or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production team :  Director Kevin Bennett.  Set Designer Kevin McAllister.  Costume Designer Christopher David Gauthier.  Lighting DesignerDarren Boquist.  Sound Designer Ben Elliott.  Stage Manager Rick Rinder.  Assistant Stage Manager Rebecca Mulvihill.  Voice, Text & Dialogue Coach Alison Matthews.  Assistant to the Director Seamus Fera.

Performers :  David Bloom (James Reiss).  Lauren Bowler (Ghost / Sarah / Newspaper Woman / T.V. Producer).  Chris Cochrane (Speaker / Butler / Sir Michael).  Ted Cole (King Charles III).  Charlie Gallant (Prince Harry).  Katherine Gauthier (Kate).  Shekhar Paleja (Spencer / Butler / Kabob Vendor / Sir Gordon / Archbishop).  Oliver Rice (Prince William).  Agnes Tong (Jess).  Gwynyth Walsh (Camilla).  Simon Webb (Mr. Evans).  Christine Willes (Mrs. Stevens).

Addendum : What follows is an editorial that appeared in The Guardian from Manchester, England on May 12, 2017. It provides an interesting realpolitik lens through which to view Mike Bartlett's play.

King Charles III, Mike Bartlett's play set in a future shortly after the Queen's death, aired on the BBC this week. Its trim new television version was directed by Rupert Goold and starred, in what turned out to be his masterful swansong, the late Tim Pigott-Smith, who died suddenly between filming and broadcast. The drama, the stage premiere of which was agt the Almeida in London before runs in the West End and on Broadway, is about a constitutional crisis precipitated by the new king's refusal to sign a new bill into law.  As the country descends into riots and unrest, a subplot also emerges about a romance betwee Prince Harry and an ordinary London student (their idyll reudely interrupted by press intrusion). And the Duchess of Cambridge reveals a steely interior life quite different from the benign exterior projected by the real Kate Middleton.

Mr. Bartlett's blank-verse drama is a riff on the Shaklespearean history play : he has given a Prince Charles tinged with Lear and Richard III; a Duchess of Cambridge perfumed with Lady Macbeth; and a Prince Harry very obviously drawing on his namesake, Prince Hal of Henry IV, who hangs around tavernsl with his raffish pals only to abandon them brutally when duty calls. The royal family are, as Alan Bennett has pointed out...a gift to write about.They are endlessly seen while essetially unknown, and so provide blank slates on to which one can project imaginary life.

Mr. Bennett has also written of fiction's peculiar way of prefiguring the future -- "write it, and it happens".  Since its premiere in 2014, King Charles III has come to look rather prescient. The year after it was first staged came the revelations of "the black spider" memos, lobbying letters from the Prince of Wales to various government ministers. And last year, Prince Harry issued an unprecedented statement condemning what he called the "wave of abuse" breaking in the tabloid press and on social media over his girlfriend, the actor Meghan Markle.

The broadcast of King Charles III came a few days after the news that the Duke of Edinburgh had decided to step down from official duties. A frisson of anxiety had gripped social media in the hours that had elapsed between the notification that an announcemnt was imminent and public circulation of its actual contents -- a tiny foretaste, it seems clear, of the real shock that will attend the passings of the senior members of the royal family.  It was, perhaps, such anxieties about the future that made King Charles III something of a hot potato in the press, with rave reviews in some quarters -- and in others, somewhat laughable accusations that it was virtually treasonous.

Even staunch republicans can allow themselves to admit that in a time of great political uncertainty, the death of the Queen, when it eventually comes, is almost certain to provide a further jolt to an already shaken country. Only 1% of today's population were adults when she was crowned; 83% of us have spent our whole lives with her as Queen.  King Charles III, like all the best drama, touched a raw nerve. And it provides a gentle reminder that when the mnoment of succession does arrive, it will behoove everyone -- citizerns, politicians, royals -- to go carefully.

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