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KALCHEIM: ‘King Charles III,’ democracy on trial in ‘future history’ play

Does the cult of majority rule, as Tocqueville might well have called it, not leave us in a sort of philosopher’s dystopia in which no question can actually be discussed on its merits, according to the criterion of right and wrong, when policy is nothing more than the formulation of poll-findings?

I cannot leave off the subject of my recent trip to London without some discussion of what was perhaps the most impressionable thing I did there, which was to see the marvelous neo-Shakespearean “future history” play on the west end, King Charles III by Mike Bartlett. The play imagines the tragic reign of Prince Charles following the death of his mother, the present queen. The play is tentatively scheduled to be presented in New York next autumn. I very much commend the piece to local theatre-goers, at that time, as being well worth the car-ride down.

From everything I had heard of the play before arriving in Britain, the whole thing struck me as somewhat of a stunt: A grand telling of the history of a King’s reign, but of a future King, not an historical one, much of it tailored to the demands of Shakespearean verse; and a rather old-fashioned, and very out-dated narrative, meant as a parallel to the history of the first King Charles; a conflict between crown and parliament that results in the king’s dissolution of the latter, and leads to a constitutional crisis, though not, perhaps, on the scale of the English Civil War of the 1640s. It would seem something out of a supermarket thriller: The King is off his rocker, trying to rule by himself, so as seemingly to imitate his forbearer of the same name. Meanwhile, the very modern media icons, Will and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, plot to rescue the sovereign from his anachronistic power grab, and save the monarchy as future tabloid fodder for generations to come. Would not we Americans, desperate for an embodied figure of national identity more awesome than our messily elected president, simply crave such a soap-opera?

Fortunately, for those of us who wanted something more than a sort of high- stakes Downton Abbey, this is not what is playing at the Wyndam Theatre in the West End, and what will come to Broadway later this year. Instead, we get a very good piece of theatre, which provokes a lot of important soul searching about the foundations of government.

That our sympathies lie very much with Charles throughout the work, is, I think, a very wholesome contravention of the usual media line that Charles is an old fogy with antiquated tastes who, by the way, is uniquely responsible for the tragic life of his first wife, Princess Diana. Though an hereditary King, Charles stands, in this play, as a lonely voice advocating on behalf of civil-liberties, social tolerance and forgiveness, against a democratically elected government whose position is essentially one of mob rule: The majority is always right.

The play opens in the aftermath of the present Queen’s funeral; and a conflict quickly develops around the King’s first official business. The King is asked to grant the customary royal assent (essentially an executive signature) to a bill passed by parliament to penalize certain activities of the press in response to a phone-hacking scandal like the one that recently engulfed Rupert Murdoch’s publishing empire. The King takes the view that this fundamentally threatens the principle of freedom of the press. His Prime Minister does little to defend the legislation, other than to note the support it enjoys in opinion polls, and by both houses of the legislature. The King asks his Prime Minister to re-consider the legislation in light of these potential problems. The Prime Minister, who takes the view that the bill is a fait-accompli, wanting only the customary signature of a card-board monarch with no opinions whatsoever, refuses categorically. And so a crisis is born.

When Charles finally does take the step of dissolving Parliament, it is not as a crazed bid for personal power, but as a formal way of demanding that the people get a chance to have their say on the matter in a general election. The implication is that if the people support their elected government’s position, Charles will back down. Unfortunately for Charles, and thanks to Kate’s efforts to secure the place of her husband’s portrait on future British currency, it never comes to this.

The question the play poses is timely, and deeply political. Is democracy, the rule of the majority, really a good in itself, or should we value it merely because it has long appeared the best form of government at preserving the Rights of Man, and working generally in the public interest? If it is shown that a democratically elected leader is enacting policy which directly threatens the rights of man, and so the wellfare of the people; and hence that democracy is verging dangerously towards its degenerate form of mob-rule, should not an un-democratic, but very public and respected figure, be able to step in and call for further debate? Does the cult of majority rule, as Tocqueville might well have called it, not leave us in a sort of philosopher’s dystopia in which no question can actually be discussed on its merits, according to the criteria of right and wrong, when policy is nothing more than the formulation of poll-findings?

Playwright Mike Bartlett seems to be asking us all of these questions in King Charles III. And he is right to do so, especially in this “Post-Snowden Age” of constant state surveillance, when every crazy murder by a bunch of low-life nut-cases, who aspire to the dignity of being known as “terrorists,” serves as a new pretext to impose even more surveillance.

Some in America refer to our legislature, not wrongly, as “the best Congress money can buy.” But is the best government money can buy really all that un-democratic? In an age in which the supposed meritocratic achievement of wealth, through ingenuity, or good-marketing, is seen as the only fair way to order the society, can untrammeled democracy, that meritocratic ideal, really exist as a viable alternative to the power of money? Is the dignity of wealth, which, presumably, anyone can attain if he works hard-enough, and gets enough people to buy whatever he is trying to sell, invariably preferable to the dignity of an hereditary aristocracy?

In the role of Charles, Tim Piggott-Smith, memorable, to those of a certain generation as the evil Merek in the BBC series The Jewel in The Crown, is absolutely majestic. It is a performance of great humanity that, in intensity of color, depth of feeling, and fine elocution, puts him, even within this enormously talented ensemble, in a league of his own. Crucially, for one playing a figure so much in the public eye, Piggott-Smith doesn’t try to “do” Charles, but retains enough of his mannerisms to remind us who he is. Adam James gives us a perfectly unlikable, and utterly believable modern day prime minister, with a lot of London Mayor Boris Johnson in his delivery (is this some hint of the future?).

Adding a crucial second dimension to the play is a subplot concerning Prince Harry (the commendable Richard Goulding) whose involvement with a young woman of dubious reputation (Tafline Steen) gives an opportunity for the purveyors of conservatism, here embodied by Charles, to be just as tolerant and open minded as those who flaunt their democratic credentials could possibly be. Such is the power of Mike Bartlett’s new play that it urges us to throw out all our assumptions that the progressive way forwards, towards values of greater tolerance and social justice, must be brought to worship at the altar of democracy. Are the old, outdated, and decidedly un-hip aristocrats not, in the end, part of the problem, but part of the solution? Is it not time to take a second look at these questions, which is all, in the end, that Charles wants his ministers to do in this play.

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