By May S. Ruiz
If we were to determine how we feel about our neighbors across The Pond by the popularity of shows on PBS and the BBC, we could confidently conclude that Americans are enamored with all things British.
Their class structure for one, which is vastly different from ours, is a source of endless curiosity. Our fascination with the English aristocracy made a phenomenal success of ‘Downton Abbey’ set at the turn of the 20th century depicting the intersecting lives of the Crawleys and those who served them. Never mind that breaching the class system at that time wasn’t slightly plausible; we wanted to believe the Crawleys had an innate goodness.
More recently, the lives of English monarchs, past and present, are being serialized in ‘Victoria’ and ‘The Crown’. These programs will chronicle two widely admired queens’ reign through the decades, for our extended viewing pleasure. We just couldn’t get enough of the Royals.
And now the British monarchy or, more accurately, ascension to the throne is the focus of a future history play that’s on stage at the Pasadena Playhouse from November 8 to December 3, 2017. Written by Mike Bartlett, ‘King Charles III’ was the winner of the 2015 Olivier Award for Best New play and is the second production in the Playhouse’s 2017-2018 season. It also marks the play’s Southern California premiere.
‘King Charles III’ is directed by Michael Michetti, who is also helming two other Pasadena productions – ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’ at A Noise Within, and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ in February at The Theatre @ Boston Court, where he is Co-Artistic Director.
According to Michetti he saw the Broadway performance, which was essentially a remount of the British production with the original cast, two years ago and absolutely loved it. When the Pasadena Playhouse’s Producing Artistic Director, Danny Feldman, selected the play and asked Michetti to direct, he jumped at the chance.
Says Michetti, “While this staging is not going to be the same as what was done in London’s West End nor the one I saw on Broadway in New York, we are not intentionally trying to change it. I thought it was a wonderful production and it was beautifully done. But any time you mount a show you take into consideration all the conditions, including where it’s being produced, what the space is like, who the actors are, and what adjustments need to be made.
Because this is being produced in Southern California, at the Pasadena Playhouse, there were some concerns to address in pre-production. Among them is that the needs of the Playhouse space are very different from that of the Broadway’s.
The Pasadena Playhouse is such a beautiful and historic theater but the challenge was that the stage was too high. Very early on, we brought in a scenic designer to work on the creative space. He fashioned an area that steps down from the stage level to bring the action closer to the audience. This means members of the audience are in the midst of the action, giving the production a real immediacy that’s supported by the style of the play.”
“It’s written in the style of Shakespeare,” Michetti expounds. “And like in a Shakespearean play, there are times when actors break the fourth wall in a soliloquy and speak to the audience. We made sure this connection was maintained. This takes advantage of the stage we have created, allowing for an intimate relationship with the audience. What adds to its intimacy is that the play involves the Royal family whom we know so well.
The English royals are people we only see and hear on television interviews. They’re very protective of their image; they don’t let us into their thoughts so we’re not privy to what they’re thinking. Bartlett very cleverly allows us behind closed doors to listen in on conversations that might be happening. That’s extremely powerful.”
According to Michetti contemporary plays in the fashion of Shakespeare are pretty novel. While Bartlett uses a number of Shakespearean styles and inventions like blank verse, ‘King Charles III’ is told with modern characters and in present-day English as well. This makes it easier for the audience to understand.
As befits a play about the royal family, ‘King Charles III’ revolves around people American audiences are very familiar with – Camilla, William, Catherine, Harry – and a few fictional characters Bartlett conjured, including a new love interest for Harry, and a family ghost.
Over the past few years, with the marriage of William to Catherine, who is a commoner, there has been a resurgence in our enthrallment with the Windsors. This young couple has certainly made the royals feel more accessible. That ‘King Charles III’ is arriving on the Southern California stage on the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death has only increased our excitement.
“Our most common recollection of Prince Charles was during the Diana years, when he didn’t quite cut a sympathetic figure,” posits Michetti. “There was a great deal of negative backlash after Charles’s and Diana’s fairy tale marriage crumbled. But Charles and Camilla have since successfully built a healthy relationship with the British public. Many Americans may not be aware of it, but he has regained a good image. While Diana is still beloved in England, the prince, of late, has become more respected.
These days we see a great deal of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Catherine, who are very popular with the media and they know how to use the press to better advantage. It is a power they have over the monarchy and the play touches on that.
Because ‘King Charles III’ is about real people my mandate is for actors in the role of Charles, Camilla, William, Catherine, and Harry to avoid playing them as they have been represented in the media. We made a very deliberate effort to make sure they are not delivering impersonations but emulating qualities of them.”
“The play is structured like a political thriller and it gives nothing away,” Michetti discloses. “It begins at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. Charles has become king and he faces challenges which have personal and political impacts as he deals with the transition to the monarchy. The play is surprisingly funny in its portrayal of the characters and the wit with which they tackle their problems. It’s exceptionally smartly written.
When I saw it on Broadway two years ago I was dazzled at how well-crafted it was but it didn’t feel relevant to American audiences. But a lot has happened since. Concerns including the dangers of limiting freedom of the press, the difficulty of political transitions, conflicts between branches of government, and the potential for constitutional crisis are all issues on our headline news every day. I hope that while the circumstances and characters are different audiences will be able to see ourselves, and the current situations in America, reflected in this play.”
‘King Charles III’ has all the elements of ‘must-see TV’ except it’s performed live in front of us. It is replete with captivating personalities we merely glimpse in magazines at the supermarket checkout – a king facing a political emergency as soon as he begins his reign, a prince dating a young woman who has an embarrassing past, a lady coming back as a ghost to haunt the palace.
This production is one that Anglophiles will most assuredly relish. Eager as we are to see how the royals resolve this predicament in the end so are we reluctant to end our enjoyment in watching them keep their wry humor through it all. That they speak in iambic pentameter with their posh accent only adds to our delectation. ‘King Charles III’ is decadently brilliant!