Were there such a thing as right of Tony Award succession, last year's Best Actress in a Play (Helen Mirren's Queen Elizabeth II in The Audience) would logically and lawfully lead to this year's Best Actor in a Play (Tim Pigott-Smith's King Charles III).
Smith's strong showing as England's future monarch, which settled Nov. 1 into the Music Box, has set the bar for all pretenders and contenders for 2015's Best Actor.
But in 10 days Mark Strong, a fellow Brit parading as a colonialist from Red Hook (Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge), will start rapid-fire chin-ups on that bar while sifting through his own Shakespearean tragedy. Already he wrestled the Best Actor Olivier from royalty, though King Charles III won the Best Play.
Broadway's King Charles III Celebrates a Regal Opening Night; Red Carpet, Curtain Call and Cast Party Pics!
Mike Bartlett's elaborate fever-dream about the next batch of Royals is a rude lunge forward on H.G. Wells' old "Time Machine" to a not-so-distant future. It opens with the funeral of Elizabeth II after the longest reign in English history. The son designated to take over "from first breath to last gasp" can't seem to get his royal ascent off the ground, sandbagged by a political firestorm that runs counter to his conscience. And there Charles dangles, the man who would be king — in political purgatory, between coronation and abdication, warring off the intervention of "the King and Queen of column inches" (William and Kate), wild-card joker Harry and their ill-advisers.
All this is played against a rotunda of red-brick antiquity reminiscent of the arena where Henry II metaphorically mud-wrestled his three sons and scheming, estranged wife for the throne in The Lion in the Winter. "Well, what family doesn't have its ups and down?" the wife wistfully lamented, understating the case a country mile. Charles III, in contrast, retreats to his royal handbook to check out the extent of his powers, opting to dissolve the Parliament that opposes him — not the smartest or safest move, according to royal-watcher Lady Gwendolyn Whitby of Regal Eagles. When Charles I dissolved Parliament in 1628, she tells me, it cost him his head. He was the only English king ever to be beheaded.
But playwright Bartlett is not out for blood here. "The great thing about the royal family — if you're British — is that you write about human beings with all the things human beings have — failings and passions and hopes — and when you do that, you also write about the country," he declared cheerfully at the Bryant Park Grill after-party. "You do it at the same time, and that's why Shakespeare wrote about the kings and queens of Britain — to get to do the national and the personal at the same time. I just needed to find a way in. Then, I thought of Charles as this guy who waited his whole life to do a job and it turns out to be a tiny moment. I thought, 'That's it!'"
To that, he ladled on the Shakespearean excesses. "Once I had the idea of a tragic Shakespearean era, I realized how great that would be to tap into the British theatrical tradition of all those actors like Tim Pigott-Smith, who has done those big roles, and a director like Rupert Goold, who has directed a lot of Shakespeare. You get to access that whole pool of talent. Normally, when you write a play in colloquial speech, you don't get to act with any of that. I suddenly realized that would be a good idea, and all I needed to do was get to the rights, which was not easy."
Did Bartlett feel royal laser beams boring into his brain as he was cooking up his unfettered fiction about his country's rulers? "I did, and I didn't. The form of the play was abstract enough, and the things that the play is talking about are the roles these characters play. It's not a throwaway, it's not a parrot play, it's not a snarky play. Hopefully, it's written on the condition of exploring what these roles are."
In the title role, Smith presents that rarest of spectacles — a human royal in chaotic disarray for sticking to his convictions, thumbing through his royal handbook to check out the extent of his figurehead power. There's a desperate kinship to Nigel Hawthorne's "The Madness of King George." Fittingly, it's a powerhouse performance.
"I actually think it's very sympathetic toward Charles," he contended (and he plays it that way as well). "It's wonderful writing, very clever. In the first 10-15 minutes, Charles meets the prime minister and takes a stance in favor of the freedom of the press. I think the audience comes on line with that. They go, 'That's good. I like him.'
"But I think the fear of the monarchy and some of the internal politics might upset the royal family. Given that, just think what a truly amazing country we live in where we could play the play at the Wyndham, which is only about a mile from the palace."
So far, he has not noticed the play being received differently on Broadway than in London. "I think so far they take to it like English audiences. They find it funny, they find it interesting, they find it moving. Those are the three things you ask of a play."
Oliver Chris, who last boxed at the Music Box with the magnificently manic James Corden in 2012's One Man, Two Guvnors, here works with a different coloring set, leading the sons' charge against their old man, the one trying to be king. He said that he enjoys the second act's deep dive into Shakespearean intrigues and tragedies.
"It's wonderful to play that depth of emotion. One of the supremely clever things Mike Bartlett has done is that, while we're all at loggerheads in huge disagreements, the tragedy comes from the question: What is the right thing to do in this situation?
"All of the characters are pursuing it like it's a noble agenda. They're all pursuing what they believe is right so we don't have any bad guys. We just have people with different outlooks and a different oral argument. Because of that, you can play your motivations with such conviction that it actually allows the driver, when those two convictions come together, to let the scenes play themselves, and it's wonderful.
"And playing opposite somebody who I can only describe as a terrific, inspiring father to the company that Tim Pigott-Smith has become and be able to do this confrontation scene we have at the end is absolutely wonderful. Every show is different. We don't nail that scene down. We just play it, and it comes out."
Like Smith, Chris feels the weight of playing a real-life royal. "I'm rather a huge fan of Prince William," he was happy to confess. "I never was before we started this play. I was never really much of a royalist. I didn't know much about them. But since accepting the role, I obviously did some research, and I think the way William holds himself with such grace and respect for his position and his role in the family in the country and in the world. He is a remarkable guy. He has two beautiful children, a very loving wife and a stable family, seemingly. He started life as an RAF helicopter pilot. Now he's an air rescue pilot. Now he's an air rescue pilot and an air ambulance pilot on a helicopter. Who else in the world do I want to be my once and future king? Frankly, he checks every single box. He's come out of adversity to be an example — and I admire that.
"I can't imagine if the tragedies that have happened in his life had happened in my life and had been so publicly digested and dissected globally as his, I think probably I would be in the Mojave Desert right now, sucking peyote out of a baked bean tin."
The royal women depicted here — Charles' Camilla and William's Kate — are more power-aware than their husbands, so much so they betray their steely ambition.
"This is something that has grown in the production during the year and a half we've been doing it," observed the Kate of the occasion, Lydia Wilson. "That's really blossomed in the play — those protective relationships. And it's really fun to play."
Margot Leicester, in her Broadway debut as Camilla, concurred. "It would be very odd, wouldn't it, to split where your ambitions of power for yourself or for those you love because you think it would fulfill them? I think you would find it very hard.
"Where would you slice that with Lady Macbeth, for instance, or with Queen Margaret in Richard III? How much is their sense of self involvement — their own idea and how much is to do with 'I know he needs it — he's got to go for it.' I have played, very badly, Lady Macbeth — twice — and didn't understand her. I'm not sure if I do now, but it was more of a process of realizing every time I didn't."
Camilla gets a compassionate soft-focusing from Leicester. "I feel a multitude of things about her, really. It's a mercy as an actor you have to play from your own P.O.V., so I'm released then to be able to play what to me is a very tender love story, a very enduring love story about someone who is my age — 66 — who has loved the same guy probably through quite a lot of very challenging situations, to put it mildly — you know, not to say disasters, public events and loss — and has managed to love this man without judgment, something we would all hope for in our lives. But I find judgment all too easy to do myself, and I think Charles, probably from having this love onwards, has always had love with judgment. I think what Camilla gives is a release from being disapproved of. Theirs is a devoted, loving relationship."
This is not to say that Diana, true to Shakespearean tradition, doesn't do a couple of ghostly guest-shots, wafting around in the shadows and giving Charles angina. How did Sally Scott get into her Diana mode? Simple, she said. "There's a famous interview with Martin Bashir, and that's a really good way in. It's just her and the interviewer, but she obviously must be aware that the platform to which she is seeking will be very public, so it's quite a good insight into her public persona."
Richard Goulding, whose spiky ginger hair was "only very subtly adjusted" to resemble Prince Harry's, paints him as the palace bad boy — as per the play. "We have to honor the play, and we have to honor the characters who are in the play," he said. "Some of the things Harry does and says in the show are difficult to imagine in the real world, so we just have to think about the play. Having said that, the royal family is so much a part of our lives — our daily DNA. Our research was being Brit."
Miles Richardson — blessed with the profile and precise pronunciation of his late father (Ian Richardson, a Tony-nominated Henry Higgins) — has a field day playing the royals' easily appalled press representative. "I did have great fun with this role," he admitted. "When I first got the script, I didn't have to get through more than five pages before I said. 'Yes, I really want to do this part.' Also, they wanted me to understudy Tim, so I rang him up, and said, 'What do you think of the play?' He said, 'I think it's the best thing I've done,' and I said, 'Well, I agree, and I'll come in and I'll learn your part in the knowledge that you'll never be off.' And then, of course, he was off because he fell off his motorcycle, so I had to take over for five weeks."
Richardson added a postscript to the story: The King has now sold his motorcycle.