By Mike Bartlett
Directed by Joel Greenberg
Presented by Studio 180 for the off-Mirvish Series,
At the CAA Theatre, Toronto until March 4, 2018
(Guest reviewer: Maria Heidler) 

“Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.”
Or, in Mike Bartlett’s award-winning play, let us address the crises that could occur following the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

Bartlett tells us that he has taken his inspiration from Shakespeare, and has given us a “future history”, a family epic (a 5-Act play with ghost and comic sub-plot) written in blank verse in the enveloping rhythms of iambic pentameter which, when performed by Studio 180’s superb cast, draw you into a very modern tale with modern speech; a musical of words, an opera of emotion.

As we await the start of the tale, the stage is bare apart from a top-lit, shallow, three-tiered dais which dominates the floor. Pre-show music is almost subliminal, with ghostly pulsating beats. Then a soft haze descends from above giving a sense of uncertainty – a problem yet to be solved?

Then the lights dim to a tolling of bells and choral accompaniment, as the 12 members of the cast enter and process the stage with amber candles. Charles (David Schurmann) then addresses the audience to set the scene. He tells us that this is the funeral of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. Already his famous dry wit is apparent as the Royal Family gather around, and talk of his becoming King at the forthcoming Coronation. Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (Rosemary Dunsmore), corrects them by stating that he is King already on the death of his mother. She is ignored!

In Joel Greeberg’s fine production, scenes flow seamlessly one into another, giving the play pace and momentum. This is partly achieved by minimal set decoration, and by props and basic furniture being handled by cast and crew in neatly choreographed sequences with the dialogue continuous. This echoes how the play would have been performed in Shakespeare’s time.

Now, the King receives his weekly visit from the Prime Minister (Gray Powell) and is asked to sign into law, a Bill that has been passed by both Houses of Parliament for a Statutory Regulation of the Press and Media. Charles is concerned it restricts the freedom of the Press and asks for alterations, but the P.M. refuses. Charles later receives the Leader of the Opposition (Patrick Galligan) to voice his concerns, but this Tory can’t be swayed, not wanting to jeopardise his already tenuous position. In the meantime, both Charles and his son William, Duke of Cambridge (Jeff Meadows) have been separately visited by an apparition of Diana, Princess of Wales, who has promised both they will be “the greatest King of all”. Now Charles, tired of his many “ling’ring” years as heir-in-waiting, asserts his Royal Prerogative and dissolves Parliament. The P.M. threatens a new Law, bypassing the Royal Assent and pushing through the Bill.

In tandem with this drama, we see Prince Harry (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) in hoodie and jeans, hanging with his mates in pubs. We learn that his marriage to Meghan Markle was short-lived (Bartlett has variously updated his script since the play’s opening in the U.K. in 2014) and now he meets a vocal Republican, Jess Edwards (Jessica Greenberg), whom he falls for. The “ginger-jester” is still being hounded by the rumour that he was the lovechild of Diana’s friend, James Hewitt…that ginger hair said it all! Maybe his“outsider” status draws him to this anti-monarchist, although in a lover’sspat re his previous marriage, he points out that “she was from Hollywood –you’re from Cricklewood!” This rebellion has all the fun of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, but…anarchy is afoot. Riots take place across the country and Buckingham Palace is besieged.

(L-R): Jeff Meadows (Prince William), Shannon Taylor (Princess Catherine), Rosemary Dunsmore (Camilla), and David Schurmann (Charles III) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Charles increases the Guard and has a tank placed in the forecourt. Meanwhile, Jess is also besieged—by the Press who dig up compromising photos from her past. Charles offers to protect her and agrees to Harry’s wish to become a commoner. Impasse rules the Kingdom. But now Kate, William’s wife, (Shannon Taylor) shows her immense power and feminist principles and, in Lady Macbeth fashion, spurs her waffling husband to mediate between King and Parliament. William emasculates his father in the most public way, and both he and Harry threaten to isolate their father if he will not come to the table. He capitulates. Charles is forced to abdicate in favour of William, who plans to sign the Bill and restore the status quo. Even Harry backs down and rejects Jess and reverts to his Royal entitlement. The Coronation takes place and the processional is accompanied by an atonal dirge that reeks with foreboding. William takes his place on the Throne with Kate at his side, an Equal Consort. As Charles takes the Crown to place it on his heir’s head, he remarks at the bejewelled perimeter encircling – Nothing! Signifying nothing! The Hollow Crown.

A powerful play – particularly at this moment in history. Superbly performed by a fine cast who ‘spoke the speech, trippingly on the tongue’ and were not tempted to veer into farcical territory re the British (especially the “Royal”) accents. Also, stature and body language were spot on – even William signed the Abdication with his left hand!