I can't be the only American to have cast a longing eye across the pond toward a form of governance (or at least a figurehead) more adult than Donald Trump. Queen Elizabeth II's popularity has only grown among her long-ago subjects in recent years, following Helen Mirren's twin triumphs as the sovereign in the film The Queen and on Broadway in The Audience. If the Netflix series The Crown has revealed royalty's collective feet of clay, it has also underscored principles of nobility, dignity, and leadership that, however imperfectly embodied, remain worth striving for.
But in his self-styled "future history play," King Charles III, Mike Bartlett—part sentimentalist, part cynic—reminds us that we're now living in what is likely to be the twilight of the crown. The growing debate in recent decades over the role of royalty will only escalate when a new sovereign must be named.
Beyond that, in Bartlett's view, the endgame of monarchy will involve either a continued long fade into irrelevance or a short, sharp shock to the political system that, as with recent American developments, splits the populace in two.
Bartlett finds both paths problematic. At the outset of his play, Prince Charles, a de facto king before his coronation, is already envisioning himself as far more active in matters of state than his mother was. In the wake of a newspaper phone-hacking scandal (sound familiar?), Parliament has passed a bill restricting freedom of the press. When Charles refuses to sign the bill into law, a step that had been pro forma under Elizabeth, the English version of a constitutional crisis is triggered.
Under Karen O'Brien's peerless direction for Burning Coal Theatre Company, Randolph Curtis Rand rules the stage as a robust monarch who gives Bartlett's blank verse full weight. When pressed to sign the abhorrent bill, Rand gravely intones, "Without my voice and spirit I am dust. This is not what I want, but what I must."
We also gradually come to see Charles's Achilles' heel: his loneliness as the sovereign, which his wife, Camilla (Lilly Nelson) cannot overcome, but which other members of the royal family can manipulate. Lucius Robinson makes a welcome return to the regional stage as Prince William, and Chloe Oliver captivates as his calculating bride, Princess Kate.
Ben Apple's uncanny turn as a chafing Prince Harry melds with newcomer Mya Ison's solid performance as his girlfriend, Jess. Strong supporting work from Simon Kaplan as a press secretary, Joey Infinito as a relentless prime minister, and Elise Kimple as a portentous ghost lend a Shakespearean weight to a compelling tragedy ripped from tomorrow's headlines.