As one leader is replaced by another, a nation is knocked askew, facing a tempestuous future that was previously considered inconceivable. The premise of King Charles III is unlikely, perhaps, but it resonates particularly well in 2016, a year when polls completely failed to predict outcomes like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
In the near future, Queen Elizabeth II passes away, after 70 or so years as Queen. Her son Charles (Robert Bathurst) is no longer the Prince of Wales but King of England, and the change in title brings a crisis of identity. After a lifetime of waiting in the wings, what will his legacy be? Charles' chance to establish himself comes quickly, in the form of a privacy law. Parliament has passed legislation that will severely curtail the reach of the press, and the bill only awaits the King's customary signature.
The King, despite his own history with media overreach, will not sign a law that he fears will impede freedom. Whether he's protecting his legacy or his conscience, Charles will not budge. Nor will the Prime Minister, Mr. Evans (Sean Fortunato). Their brinksmanship escalates, and the public is divided. Demonstrations become riots, and soon there's a tank stationed outside Buckingham Palace. As both the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition, Mr. Stevens (David Lively), hope to leverage the political discord to their respective advantage, the shrewdly ambitious Kate Middleton (Amanda Drinkall) pursues schemes of her own.
Mike Bartlett's script, written in blank verse, is a wonderful union of the contemporary and the classical. Characters soliloquize about duty and honor, but the language is crisp and modern. The winks at Shakespeare are plentiful; while in Henry V, Hal walked incognito among common soldiers to learn their grievances against the crown, this rakish Prince Harry (Alec Manley Wilson) does the same at a late-night döner kebab cart. Like many of Shakespeare's histories, the monarchs of King Charles III are inspired by prophesy, courtesy of the spectral presence of Princess Diana (Sarah Chalcroft). Nearly 20 years after her death, the sight of the late Princess is still visually arresting, and she is judiciously used here, aided by Phillip Rosenberg's otherworldly lighting.
The younger generation of Windsors are given excellent material in King Charles III, and they make the most of it. As Kate and William, Drinkall and Jordan Dean are a delight to watch as they connive, and Wilson's Harry is pitiable in an ill-fated romance with Jess (the winsome Rae Gray), the Republican art student who teaches Harry the pleasures of a life less privileged.
Kate Skinner is a dead ringer for Camilla Parker-Bowles, thanks in part to Richard Jarvie's impeccable wig design, and her love for Charles is clear, even as her patience wears thin. As for the King himself, Bathurst's Charles is a fully realized character, never veering into an impression. He is a melancholy, insecure King, but it's not hard to empathize with him.
This rich family drama unfolds on Scott Davis' deceptively simple set, a lush carpeted dais with clever hidden caches. Transitions are effortless, and under the sharp direction of Gary Griffin, King Charles III has a sense of unstoppable momentum.
If we've learned one thing from 2016, it's that we cannot easily predict the future. Luckily for Chicago Shakespeare Theater, their production of King Charles III is so gripping and clever that accuracy is entirely beside the point.