Not long after the 1937 abdication of King Edward VIII, George Orwell — who was no fan of the monarchy — thought it would last only if it could manage “a really long reign.” Queen Elizabeth II, now 90, has been on the throne since 1952, making her the longest-reigning monarch in British history. While her 64 years as queen have seen the wholesale transformation of nearly every aspect of British life, the monarchy’s future seems relatively secure.
But at some point, probably not more than 10 years from now, Prince Charles is likely to succeed her. Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, now playing at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, imagines a scenario in which that smooth succession becomes a national emergency. Unfolding in blank verse like a Shakespearian historical drama, it opens with a dirge-like procession after the queen’s funeral, using a Gothic set that’s surprisingly versatile, serving as Buckingham Palace, Westminster, and a club, all with echoes of Elsinore and Dunsinane. It’s sometime in the early 2020s — Elizabeth’s rule is said to have lasted 70 years — and a not-yet-crowned Charles quickly turns a customary consultation with a Labour prime minister into a pretext for inserting himself into the rough-and-tumble of parliamentary politics like no sovereign has in centuries.
The issue is a bill the House of Commons has passed that’s meant to protect citizens’ privacy and restrict the freedom of the press. Royal assent is a requirement for it to become law, but after decades of waiting for his mother to exit the stage, Charles (Robert Joy) relishes any opportunity to play the philosopher-king. There’s an oblique reference to the Milly Fowler episode, in which the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid News of the World was revealed to have hacked into the voicemail of a murdered 13-year-old girl. But the prime minister overplays his hand with a reference to Charles’ first wife, Diana, and the new king refuses to sign on.
Diana’s ghost (Chiara Motley) later visits Charles, like Claudius to Hamlet, assuring him he will be the “the greatest King we ever had.” We realize that this is a manifestation of Charles’ own troubled mind once William (Christopher McLinden), now Prince of Wales and heir apparent, hears his mother’s ghost coo the same flattering utterance. And as Charles’ cautionary warnings to preserve vital British freedoms threaten to usurp power away from the elected representatives nominally answerable to him, radicals in Guy Fawkes masks take to the streets.
It may all be a tad too Anglophilic for American audiences — and laughs bubbled up from the audience at odd moments — but it’s hard to ascribe blame to the text. Well-cast and well-plotted, King Charles III imagines a crisis that makes the possibility of a President Trump look palatable. Many characters subtly adapt in response to the situation, showing their true colors. Ever-sensible William navigates the competing demands of family and nation, and the initially bubbly Kate (Allison Jean White) — officially a commoner who married up — becomes the sanest custodian of the monarchy. But it’s the imperious Camilla (Jeanne Paulsen) who gets the best sneers, calling the popular William and Kate the “King and Queen of column inches” and lashing out at what she sees as their betrayal of the man who waited so patiently for his time to come.
A soliloquy or two could probably be pruned back, but if King Charles III has a weakness apart from the occasional break in the mostly American cast’s accents, it’s the B-plot involving Prince Harry (Harry Smith, the only actual Brit on the stage). A woebegone cad, still single in his late 30s, he’s smitten with a non-white, working-class art student named Jessica (Michelle Beck) who’s torn between her anti-monarchist political allegiances and the glamour of dating a royal. They appear to fall instantly in love, and spend the rest of the play at odds until the predictable conclusion, with a detour through a media gauntlet the prime minister’s controversial law could have prevented. But by that point, Charles has taken to wearing full military regalia and parking a tank outside the palace as the nation reels, its Parliament dissolved and civil institutions teetering toward civil war. As a dramatic device, Harry’s finest moment may be when he comes home intoxicated from a night mingling among his father’s subjects, bedecked in a Burger King crown — the only one he’ll ever wear.
The play premiered in 2014, but in light of Brexit and the ongoing populist revolts worldwide, King Charles III‘s plausibility is even more compelling. When the isolated king demands the complement of guards stationed at the palace gates be increased, his unctuous adviser reminds him that they’re there only as a “tourist ceremony.” Until it comes time for the Archbishop of Canterbury to formally install the new monarch, Charles remains unaware that he is fundamentally no different.
King Charles III, through Oct. 9, at the American Conservatory Theater, 405 Geary St., act-sf.org.