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.

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