The current clan occupying the English throne came to it not through military conquest but the generally less trying expedient of marriage. The route laid out by this marital union was circuitous: two generations after a Protestant granddaughter of the King of England, James I, married into the House of Hanover, a German Duke called Georg became the first English King named George.
The latest heir in the Hanoverian line, since refashioned as the Windsors, was christened George a couple of years back, his name—in spite of the anglicizing “e”—a solid reference to the family’s Teutonic heritage. If the tyke one day toddles down the aisle of Westminster Abbey and takes orb and scepter in hand he’ll do so to the music of another German Georg(e): born in Halle in 1685 as Georg Friedrich Händel, this greatest of English composers died in London in 1759 as George Frideric Handel.
Handel’s mighty Coronation Anthems—the mightiest of which is Zadok the Priest—have not so much accompanied as they have sanctified (or perhaps “sublimified”) the crowning of every British monarch since he wrote them for the accession of George II in 1727.
There is nothing more English than these German Georges.
The latest of them—who, if he does become king will be the seventh George—gets but brief mention in Mike Bartlett’s ingeniously written and plotted play, Charles III, which premiered in London’s West End last year and won the Oliver Award for Best New Play. It migrated to Broadway in November.
I saw the play last Saturday night on the hottest December 12th in the history of Manhattan, the day’s high of 66˚F busting the old record by a whopping four degrees. Crank up the heat on the neon cauldron of a Times Square already boiling with the whacky Christmas energy only New York can generate, then pour in gazillions of scantily clad Yankee-hatted tourists wielding shopping bags and selfie-sticks and you’ve got a explosive recipe for dread and despair.
I’m not one to freak out among the trampling masses, but it is incredible to me how, with the Paris terror attacks of Paris and shootings in California so much in the news, the throngs still herd themselves into this blinding, overcrowded Midtown version of hell. Even if the anti-terror presence of surveillance cameras and undercover eccentrics is as palpable as the pulsing waves of light, I can imagine no more coveted target for attack. It’s all here: recruitment centers for the U.S. military screening jumbotron films of human daring and technological might; the towering electric symbols of global capitalism, consumerism, modernity, environmental collapse, decadent lusts, degrading entertainments, and just plain bad taste—Coke, HSBC, CNN, Andrew Lloyd Webber …
The outlet valve of West 45th hardly relieves the pressure of such crowds and angsts. More alley than avenue, the street’s puny sidewalks are if anything more claustrophobic than the madness of Times Square showering neon down on the theatergoers pooled beneath marquees showing a forlorn Al Pacino in David Mamet’s latest rant-fest and the radiant duo of James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in a revival of The Gin Game.
Charles III is across from these shows in the Music Box, a theater founded by Irving Berlin back in 1921. The title role belongs to the excellent Tim Pigott-Smith, who stands as one of my favorite actors because of his portrayal of the musically and politically conservative Count Dietrichstein in the 2003 BBC film, Eroica, one of the best classical music movies ever made. Pigott-Smith’s disapproving brow, imperious posture, and impatient gestures said everything about the revolutionary strategies of Beethoven’s third symphony.
Pigott-Smith is just two years older than Prince Charles, and in Bartlett’s play inhabits a theatrical body and even presents a countenance that miraculously resembles the Prince of Wales. Pigott-Smith claims not to have done any particular study of Charles in preparation for the part: simply being an Englishman of the prince’s generation was enough for this expert, enthralling actor.
The rest of the cast effects kindred physical transformations: the magic of the theater, animated by this play full of linguistic richness and political intrigues, almost makes us believe we’re seeing the real figures. Margot Leicester becomes the galumphing consort, Camilla. Most uncanny of all is the superb Richard Goulding as Prince Harry, the “ginger joke” as he calls himself in one of Bartlett’s many brilliant and memorable lines. The modern slouch and fidget; the slightly gangsta gate; the unruly, unroyal hair (refusing to thin as his brothers is, and therefore, like its reddish color, casting doubts on his real genetic lineage): all these make of this Harry a captivating, rudderless mess. Likewise, Lydia Wilson as Princess Kate convinces with her body as much as her speech. This morganatic Middleton is a paradoxically bloodless Lady Macbeth whose perfectly managed figure and movements unfalteringly project frigid calculation and iron resolve. Even the invented character of Jess, as brought to edgy, truth-telling life by Rachel Spencer Hewitt, packs the punch of the real into her fictional anarchist’s frame and loads authentic estuarian firepower into her blank verses.
The play’s clever subtitle—A Future History Play—suggests how Bartlett depicts the panderings and missteps of the royal house not in smudged tabloid hues, but instead paints them as a vast Shakespearean tableau. Written in blank verse, the play clinches scenes with rhyming couplets. Through the renunciation of vacuous modern speech in favor bardic diction, Bartlett allows his actors to make many penetrating insights about the perpetual royal tension between duty and love in an amoral age of popularity polls and photo ops.
The music, composed by Jocelyn Pook, enfolds the onstage machinations in something-is-rotten shadows. The program bio reports that Pook is “best known for her score for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.” Hers was not the most memorable work on that score; that contribution was made by the relentless, unsettling oscillations of a piano movement from Gyorgy Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata. Pook’s music for the debauched ballroom scene in Kubrick’s film has many of the features of her Charles III score: minimalistic string figures ushering in stentorian chanting, in this case in an indistinct language that, as one assiduous YouTube commentator suggests, could be biblical verses in Romanian backwards.
In Charles III the sung language is Latin, ersatz Gregorian chant set in a kind of faux-medieval organum and ably performed by the onstage cast with multi-tasking vocal support from the pair of instrumentalists (cello and oboe/English horn) accompanying from their nearby perch in the royal box. From the Requiem for Queen Elizabeth that opens the play to the coronation Te Deum that closes it, Pook’s engagement with history through musical layerings and juxtapositions parallels and supports the ingenuities of Bartlett’s language. When the Maria Jeffers’ cello begins again its triadic repetitions as royals, courtiers, and politicians array themselves in Westminster Abbey for the coronation of the male successor to the throne, we hear echoes of Handel’s Zadok. Who knew this German George was the first Anglo-American Minimalist, and that the royal musical style he forged in 1727 could be refashioned in Pook’s expert hands for a sometimes profound play about superficial times?