One of the things that distinguish British theater from American is its fearless to picality. Compared with their stateside counterparts, British playwrights are far more willing to engage in the public arena, dramatizing headline news, commenting on political issues and public figures. Among this season’s hot tickets in London is Great Britain, a scabrous, fictionalized account of the British tabloid-hacking scandal. Peter Morgan’s The Audience, headed for Broadway in the spring, imagines Queen Elizabeth II’s conversations with a succession of British Prime Ministers. But nothing has made as bold an entry as King Charles III, Mike Bartlett’s “future history play” about what might happen if Prince Charles should inherit the throne.
The play–currently at Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End and exploring a transfer to Broadway next year–is a high-wire theatrical feat, portraying real-life people who have been caricatured endlessly in the gossip press and turning them into nuanced, flesh-and-blood humans. It posits an imagined political scenario but never goes off the rails into apocalyptic fantasy or cheap satire. It is written almost entirely in Shakespearean blank verse, with modern slang (“You’re f-cking joking”) sitting comfortably next to eloquent soliloquies and direct-to-the-audience exposition. There’s even the ghost of Princess Diana–played, miraculously, not for laughs. It is a gripping evening of theater, a rare contemporary play with a real tragic vision and the sharpest, most sophisticated political drama I’ve ever seen.
The play begins after Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, as Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith) is already agonizing over the crown he has finally inherited. The inevitable titters in the audience are dispensed with quickly as familiar faces troop onstage: Camilla (Margot Leicester), Charles’ supportive wife; William (Oliver Chris), his dutiful, rather stuffy elder son; Harry (Richard Goulding), the restless younger son with a roving eye and the un-Windsor-like red hair.
It is Charles’ determination to rescue the throne from irrelevance that precipitates a constitutional crisis. While getting a routine briefing from his Prime Minister (Adam James), Charles refuses to sign a bill passed by Parliament that would severely restrict freedom of the press. With polite deference but growing alarm, the PM protests that the King’s signature is merely ceremonial–that he hasn’t the power to flout the will of the people’s elected representatives.
Charles stands fast. Both political parties unite in outrage, introducing a bill that would strip the King of his power to approve legislation. Charles responds by dissolving Parliament. The upshot is something approaching civil war–both in the country and in the royal family.
Bartlett and director Rupert Gould dramatize all this with plausibility, even-handedness and empathy for nearly everyone involved. The political maneuvering is as intricate and Machiavellian as anything in House of Cards, but the combatants are all sincere in their irreconcilable positions. There may be a touch of Lady Macbeth in the pushy, deceptive Kate Middleton (Lydia Wilson)–who eggs on William to oppose his father–but there’s also something admirable in her pragmatic, can-do attitude .
If there’s a villain, it is the system: a monarchy that inspires reverence and fealty, except when it tries to prove it has a reason for being. King Charles III audaciously, even brilliantly, lays bare the illogic of the crown that holds together this fragile, sceptered isle. And proves that theater can make headlines too.
This appears in the November 03, 2014 issue of TIME.