A SHAKESPEAREAN PLAY FOR A HISTORY NOT YET WRITTEN
Queen Elizabeth II is dead. Prince Charles ascends the throne. And all hell breaks loose.
This is the setting of King Charles III, an award-winning drama that makes its Canadian premiere at the Arts Club Theatre this month, following celebrated New York and London productions. Described as “a future history play,” the work approaches its royal subjects with an interesting twist.
“It’s written in the style of a Shakespeare play,” says director Kevin Bennett. “It has iambic pentameter, speaking to the audience, a ghost. (Playwright Mike Bartlett) has done a brilliant job in bringing the elements that make Shakespeare’s plays big, epic and powerful.”
The piece promises to do what Shakespeare did so well with his own histories: take monumental, famous figures and make them accessible on a human level (though Bennett notes the Bard wouldn’t have been allowed to write about living monarchs).
“A fair amount of the cast could care less about the monarchy,” says Bennett. “But (it) really makes you empathize with these characters. We think about the glamour of this famous family – but there is tragedy, too … We’ve spent a lot of time in rehearsal crying.
“There’s a really powerful ghost appearance — and I don’t know if this is a spoiler — but it’s Diana. “It is one of the most evocative scenes I’ve ever experienced in a rehearsal hall. It reminds me, really, of Hamlet’s ghost.”
Bennett speaks from a place of deep familiarity and expertise. Nearly 10 years ago, as an up-and-coming director in Vancouver, he would assemble colleagues to pool resources to mount productions of Hamlet, King Lear, and more in humble venues, such as the back room of Havana Restaurant.
His work on these productions would ultimately lead to opportunities at Bard on the Beach, the Stratford Festival, and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. Most recently, he directed The Madness of George III at Shaw Festival during artistic director Tim Carroll’s inaugural season.
Back in Vancouver, Bennett finds himself working on the tale of another troubled monarch. In the case of King Charles III, the action kicks off on a political note when the titular royal refuses to sign a bill.
“According to tradition, he would simply sign — as the Queen did — and it would become law. Charles is not supposed to actually wield his power as a king,” Bennett says. “But this bill would do something he disagrees with — restrict freedom of the press— and he asks whether this is a first step toward dictatorship. His heart and his gut tell him to do something differently.”
While Charles agonizes over legislation, politicians vie to outmaneuver him and William and Kate scheme to dethrone him.
“You could say Kate is the Lady Macbeth of the play,” says Bennett.
Meanwhile, Prince Harry finds himself falling in illicit love with an impoverished student.
“It’s more than just a play about kings and queens. It’s about a family, all born into certain situations, who are trying to take charge of their own lives,” Bennett says. “That’s the central struggle: how do you manifest your own destiny? The thing I love about this play is that it’s epic and personal at the same time; it’s political and it’s intimate.”
Through dedicated practice and personal study, Bennett has become an expert in Elizabethan-era theatre convention. For King Charles III, he applies this specialty in an unconventional manner.
“When I read (the play), I thought this is the perfect opportunity to do something bold,” he says. “It’s a contemporary play mixed with an Elizabethan style. My goal is to have it live between these two worlds; I’m quite literally setting out to do half and half.”
As Bennett set tackles this challenge, he is far from alone. Nearly half of King Charles III’s cast were also collaborators in the self-produced King Lear in Havana’s backroom theatre. In many ways, directing the production is a homecoming for Bennett.
“It’s been five years and it’s been a lot. In Lear, I was only starting to develop my process,” Bennett says. “Since then, I’ve had a lot of chances to practice, fail and succeed.
“We really have an awesome group of people. Everybody’s just jumped in. It’s been kind of a dream.”
King Charles III begins previews October 19. More info at artsclub.com.
Ted Cole in King Charles III.