You know it’s a banner day in theater land when the Yanks play Brits better than the Brits do.
So raise the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack up over Sidney Harman Hall, where a cast of (mostly) upstart Americans is reciting the mock-Elizabethan banter of “King Charles III” to plummy perfection. More to the point, the ensemble, led by a smashing Robert Joy under David Muse’s direction, unfolds the machinations of Mike Bartlett’s deviously deft modern version of a Shakespeare history play more incisively than did the British actors in its Broadway incarnation.
It’s the House of Windsor of the near future that Bartlett conjures here, in a style inspired by the plot and other dramatic devices of “Othello,” “Hamlet” and “Henry IV, Part I.” One of the pleasures of “King Charles III” is its clever construction as a funhouse mirror of the mechanics of Shakespeare, down to employment of iambic pentameter — and the entrance of a soothsaying ghost, a glamorous apparition out of the recent royal past.
It just so happens that, to further tantalize a Shakespeare Theatre Company audience, the crisis enveloping the Crown and its subjects is a constitutional one, provoked by the idiosyncratic man who’s about to wear it. Bartlett’s premise is that Charles, awaiting investiture after the death of Elizabeth II, startles the Labour government by asserting the king’s prerogative to oppose a new law that restricts freedom of the press (occasioned by the actual phone-tapping scandal that convulsed the nation a few years ago). A separate, and more personal, dilemma envelops Prince Harry, played expertly by ginger-haired Harry Smith, as he tries to come to terms with his own pointless position in the pecking order.
A classical theater in the nation’s capital proves to be the optimal location for Bartlett’s handiwork, because the play is a seriocomedy revolving around process and legality. The confrontation between Parliament and Buckingham Palace plays out as an entertaining study of the challenge of maintaining a constitutional monarchy in the modern world. A figure like Charles, whom we all imagine to have been champing at the bit all these years as he waited for mum to depart the scene, seems the right sort of personality to upend a government’s expectations for royal docility. When Charles takes his principled stand and makes an enemy of the prime minister (a superb Ian Merrill Peakes), the playwright has the opportunity to explore the question of what relevance there is today for a ruler who is not a ruler, who must make his mark not by command, but by intellectual stealth and the fine print in official texts.
If what’s been laid out here thus far doesn’t pique your curiosity, I suspect “King Charles III” won’t be the singular achievement for you that it is for me. The Broadway version, a transfer from London, was filled with actors who met the specific physical requirements for playing the famous royals in the story and of course, you could see how that would have been extremely important back in the mother country. In the current version, a Shakespeare Theatre co-production with San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater and Seattle Repertory Theatre, the performances are as good, if not in some cases better, and not necessarily because they hew to some notion of these characters as preconceived for us by the news media and popular culture.
Joy, for instance — an actor you might recall from any number of projects, including the film long ago with Madonna, “Desperately Seeking Susan” — here has a role in which he’s ideally cast. His Charles astutely defines for us the cerebral gifts of the long-suffering prince, and at the same time identifies the admirable qualities and failings of a man who seems to love his sons but treated his first wife, Diana, cruelly.
It’s ultimately a compassionate portrait, although it also exposes Charles to censure: A niftily turbulent scene erupts late in the play on the matter of Diana between Charles and elder son William, portrayed to intriguingly complex effect by Christopher McLinden. To add to the impression that “King Charles III” is an engrossing family drama, there are outstanding contributions here by the actresses playing the women in Charles and William’s lives, Jeanne Paulsen as Camilla and Allison Jean White as Kate.
The production’s look is a witty homage by set designer Daniel Ostling to all those imposing castles in English historical dramas, with statuary of famous ancestors peering down from recesses in the walls; the regalia by costume designer Jennifer Moeller dresses the company eye-catchingly. The music by composer and sound designer Mark Bennett resounds impressively, whether in a palace or the pubs where Harry encounters the feisty young art student (a terrific Michelle Beck) who validates his own desire for freedom.
For good measure the politicians here, played by Peakes and Bradford Farwell, as the opposition leader, dextrously animate the difficulties facing born operators who must check their own egos as they contend with royal ones. It’s one of the fascinating ways in which Bartlett reveals that power can always be better understood by brushing up your Shakespeare.
King Charles III, by Mike Bartlett. Directed by David Muse. Set, Daniel Ostling; costumes, Jennifer Moeller; lighting, Lap Chi Chu; sound and music, Mark Bennett; movement, Lisa Townsend; casting, Janet Foster and Carter C. Wooddell; voice and text, Lisa Beley; production stage manager, Joseph Smelser. With Dan Hiatt, Rafael Jordan, Jefferson Farber, Tim Getman, Chiara Motley, Bradford Farwell. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Tickets, $44-$123. Through March 18 at Sidney Harman Call, 610 F St. NW. Visit shakespearetheatre.org or call 202-547-1122.