One year in middle school, my very liberal social studies teacher (the same one who went on periodic rants about how Andrew Jackson should be taken off the twenty– which he should be, by the way) taught us about the odd little laws encoded in some of our state’s land use and real estate legislation, including fun little tidbits like it being illegal to sell certain pieces of land to African Americans. Obviously these were eventually superseded by civil rights legislation, but that’s also why they remained on the books, inactive. It’s amusing and in some sense slightly chilling to realize that there are arcane little bits of retrograde weirdness lying dormant within our legal system, perhaps just waiting for someone who is sufficiently clever and bigoted to find a way to carve them out.

In England, of course, that vestigial legal oddity is hidden in plain sight: the monarchy. It’s still there. It sucks up massive amounts of taxpayer money. They have no power, but because England lacks a written constitution, that fact is maybe more of a gentleman’s agreement than a law. At least, that’s the tenuous situation that Mike Bartlett’s fabulous King Charles III, now on the West End after opening last spring at the Almeida, proposes.

Shortly after the death of his mother but before his own official coronation, now-King Charles is growing anxious and perhaps (as Camilla says) a bit angsty about the end of his long wait and his imminent rise to… well, not power, exactly. Anxious to make the monarchy meaningful, and spurred on by some dubious politicians, Charles declines to sign a bill into law, setting off a chain of events that seem as if they might plunge the country into civil war.

Also it’s written entirely in iambic pentameter.

King Charles III is Shakespearean not only in its language and scope, but in its approach to the question of power. Prince Harry raises what I sometimes see as the central question of Shakespeare’s historical tragedies: can’t bring a modern prince mean not having to give away your soul? Charles himself has very much the air of Richard II– petulant, power-hungry, and increasingly bordering on madness– yet also undeniably appealing in his bumbling yearning for self-definition and winning candor with the audience. Tim Pigott-Smith’s marvelous performance keeps the character from flying off into caricature, rooting him soundly in something touching and human.

The other characters privileged to speak to the audience are William (Oliver Chris) and Kate (Lydia Wilson), the latter of whom nearly steals the show with the revelation of an iron will and powerful ambition. There are gestures towards Lady Macbeth as she none-too-subtly steers the somewhat hapless William towards power, but Kate’s masterful command of the trappings of modern-day royalty are unparalleled in the play, and she’s ultimately too canny to just condemn.

The one major misstep is Prince Harry’s strangely underdeveloped subplot. Disillusioned in a Prince Hal-ish fashion with life and royalty, he falls in love with a commoner, a flat Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose dearth of personality leaves their storyline nowhere to go. It’s a shame, as Richard Goulding’s tortured Harry serves, when he is alone, as a neat parallel to his father’s crisis of self, and as mentioned above, the potential for Shakespearean-inspired exploration and allusion is rich (director Rupert Goold pointed out Harry’s similarities to Hal in an interview) But Bartlett ultimately seems to lose track of the thread, tying it off in an abrupt but not unexpected manner. But this is basically the only false note in an otherwise masterfully orchestrated piece.

The morning after seeing King Charles III, I woke up to the latest from Ferguson, MO, and the grand jury’s failure to indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. On the one hand, this seems to exist on an incomparably different scale from an often silly British political drama. But the question in both cases is the dangerous ease with which our democratic systems can collapse in the face of someone determined to ignore the unwritten rules, or to lean too heavily on the letter of a law we thought we’d all agreed to ignore. One of Barlett’s most brilliant choices is to make Charles basically right: the bill he declines to sign is a draconian-sounding privacy law that would curtail the freedom of the press. But, as the Prime Minister in the play says again and again, the question at hand is not the content of the bill, but the principle behind Charles’s action. It’s not a monarch’s role to dictate policy by omission any more than it seems fair for a prosecutor to manipulate an indictment.

And in this, Charles’ fears and his rebellious subjects’ fears are one and the same: the fear of loss of control, of society suddenly ceasing the function the way you always thought it did. That after a lifetime of waiting and preparing, it turns out there’s nothing at the end of it after all. The heart of the play is deeply human, and in this Bartlett is Shakespearean once again: somehow, the stories of kings always seem to end up as tragedies.

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