King Charles III: Student Review

Sam Keimweis, Staff Writer

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The Queen is dead, the new king is upending the status quo, and England is collapsing into chaos. Thrust into the setting of the Tony award nominated predictive play King Charles III, the Horace Mann Theater Company (HMTC) produces a brilliant performance full of emotion, thought-provoking themes, and conflict.

This week’s production of King Charles III, a play written in 2014 by Mike Bartlett, portrays and speculates about the familial drama of the British royal family that ensues after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. The play follows King Charles III, played by Andrew Caosun (12), as he grapples with his newfound power after the death of his mother.

Swearing to enact change rather than serve as a national figurehead, Charles refuses to sign a bill that would limit the power of the press. This surprising move leads to nationwide protests and conflict between Parliament and the royal family. Meanwhile, Everett Kagan’s (12) Prince Harry must decide between his familial obligations and his love for a commoner, Jess, played by Charlotte Pinney (12).

Theatre teacher Ben Posner chose to direct the play because of its size. The play has a huge cast and set, but most significantly it grapples with incredibly important ideas and issues, he said.

Through an exploration of the dynamics between parliament and the royal family, the play poses several questions regarding the nature of political power. “What is power held if never used?” Caosun asks. The king should not hold the titleof king if he does not want to effect change. In attempting to answer this dilemma, the king creates a constitutional crisis that threatens to destroy the very country he is determined to better.

The play is written in modern language, but uses Shakespearean iambic pentameter and blank verse. Much like Shakespeare’s works, Charles III creates conversation, but doesn’t answer any questions, Posner said. The blank verse provides Posner with an instruction free text, which he warped to create an ominous play fringed with humor, while the rhythmic lines creates a natural flow to the dialogue and conflict. 

Much like Shakespeare’s iconic work, King Lear, Charles III explores the personal ramifications of decisions made in power. Charles’ refusal to sign a bill limiting the access of the press immediately puts him in conflict with his son Harry, as Jess has been caught by a sex scandal. In addition, Charles’ stance puts him at odds with his previous positions on the media, particularly when pertaining to his ex-wife Diana, who died in a car crash while attempting to escape from paparazzi. 

Beyond these themes are deeper seeded discussions of tradition, protest, sensibility, and ambition, which can only be found on a close watch or an analysis of the plot. Posner weaves these subtler themes into the play through thoughtful blocking, creative timing, and a playlist full of 1980’s British pop.

The music in particular is impressive, as they play in transition and perfectly set the theme for the upcoming scene. For example, “London Calling” by The Clash opens the fourth act, a scene of protest. This successfully sets the focus of the scene on the people and the protest as opposed to the monarchy, before the actors even get on stage.

Caosun is a force to be reckoned with. Broadcasting his voice with authority and maintaining a royal façade, he manages to deliver his numerous lines with enough gravitas to convey a deep emotion and accurately portray the struggles of a misguided ruler. Using this careful balance of importance and vulnerability, Caosun turns a character whose lines often come off as disaffected or unaware into a complex Shakespearean case study of the effect of power on the person who wields it.

Caosun is backed up by a large supporting cast, headlined by Spencer Kahn (11) as the calm but determined Prince William, Bebe Steel (12) as his ambitious wife Catherine, Kagan, Pinney, and nearly twenty others.

In particular, Amelia Feiner (11) delivered an inspired performance as the resolute Prime Minister Evans, while Dylan Chin (11) performed beautifully as her cunning adversary.

Charles III also makes frequent use of Shakespearean theatrical elements such as the soliloquy and monologue. For example, Catherine’s monologue at the beginning of act four scene three established her as the cynical, power-hungry feminist Steel portrays her to be. Steel’s performance, which is starkly reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, is especially memorable. The energy she puts into her part and the bite with which she says her lines steals the show.

Maya Dubno’s (12) dramatic set turns Gross Theater into a palace, with decorative linings giving a royal feel to huge walls that make the actors look small. The characters are dwarfed by the history that surrounds them as they attempt to make history of their own. In addition, the layered structure of the set is a reference to the many layers of the plot, while the layout creates limited movement and an echo that simulates the Shakespearean Globe theater.

The walls are painted a gradient gray that both evokes the imposing nature of the set and “provides a canvas for the actors to paint on,” Dubno said. Sophia Reiss (12) took these walls and ran with them, using purple hues to symbolize royalty and lighting changes to show changes in setting in her lighting design.

Even with the difficult topics, challenging script, and complicated storyline, the HMTC s¬¬till manages to have fun. One scene features protestors mooning the crowd with fake rear ends. Others, such as the press conference in Act IV, seem to become dance numbers. The result is a masterpiece of intrigue and excitement that tackles huge intellectual problems with poise and Shakespearean drama.