From the Winter 2017 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
Actor Robert Bathurst didn't waste any time getting wrapped up in the best of Chicago drama this fall. “I arrived in Chicago not knowing anything about baseball," he told me. "I got a ticket to go and sit in the bleachers to see the Cubs against the L.A. Dodgers in the playoffs. As of three weeks ago, I became a lifelong supporter of the Cubs, and what's more, some people have had to wait 108 years, I've had to wait three weeks for my first World Series win!”
Bathurst's titular character in King Charles III knows a thing or two about waiting...and waiting, and waiting for his big moment in history. Though Charles has waited about half as long as the Cubs have, the new production at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, King Charles III, takes a good look at what the world might be like in the days following Queen Elizabeth's death and her son's ascension to the throne after a lifetime of waiting. A bit macabre, you might think, but consider the impact should such a thing happen. Bathurst saw the original production of the work in London two years ago: “I loved the play. I loved the language. I loved the premise. And I had no ambition to do it, although after seeing it, I thought, 'I'd like to have a go at that.'”Fast forward two years and several thousand miles later, and Bathurst is finally having a go at it with Chicago Shakespeare Theater under the direction of veteran director Gary Griffin.
American audiences are most likely familiar with Bathurst from his role as Sir Anthony Strallan—the widower who left poor Lady Edith at the altar on the wildly popular Downton Abbey. Though Downton is certainly notable, Bathurst's career extends well beyond his work on the beloved series, and his latest work at Chicago Shakespeare Theater is a challenge he's excited to take on.
“It's a beautifully balanced play,” Bathurst told me, “It's dramatic, it's funny, and it's well-argued.”
Fitting nicely within the scope of Shakespeare Theater’s work, Mike Bartlett's King Charles III has the flavor of Shakespearean history mixed with modern language, contemporary monarchs, and a healthy dash of family drama. Make no mistake, though—this production isn't about impersonating the royal caricatures seen in the tabloids.
“We're not trying to do an impression,” explains Bathurst. “What's important is for the audience not to be endlessly reminded of how good an impressionist the actor is rather than just seeing how things develop onstage.”
Nor should audiences assume that the production or performances are meant to make a mockery of any of the characters that are based on public figures. In fact, the intention is quite the opposite.
Says Bathurst, “When you play somebody who is real, who is currently living, someone who [sic] you know only through the papers and appearances, there is a sort of responsibility—especially when you're dealing with things they have done in the past. What's interesting about this play is you're dealing with what that person might do in the future. And in a sense that's open season for anybody to guess what anybody might do in the future. You're not being in any way slanderous.”
Part of the challenge, of course, is figuring out how to flesh out a character based on someone who is both well-known and somewhat elusive as it pertains to genuine feelings, thoughts and everyday situations.“
(Playwright) Mike Bartlett has done the work of making (Charles) three dimensional,” notes Bathurst. “He's made him insecure about the fact that he's been waiting longer than he'd like to have been waiting. When anyone's parent dies, there's always a mixture of grief and guilt. With Charles, the initial guilt is the fact that he's been longing for the throne, but he's also lost his mom. So there's grief, and there's guilt. There's also insecurity about whether he's up for the job. She'd be a very difficult act to follow. And she's kept a distance and mystique about her, which Charles hasn't.”
Beyond the expected challenges of Charles taking the throne, King Charles III presents the added conflict of whether a monarch is anything more than a figurehead who is trotted out for extravagant events and ribbon cuttings. There are definitely some very interesting political ideas within this script, plus there's more than enough intrigue to keep audiences engaged.
“It deals with big and small issues,” says Bathurst. “Big political issues. Where does power lie? Where should power lie? What is the importance of democracy over traditional unelected rulers? What role is there for those people today? Does the monarchy have any role as a check and balance to the executive in the UK? Those are the sort of dry constitutional issues. But this is also a cracking good drama about people and betrayal.”
Some of that drama is wrapped up in British politics. What happens when the King refuses to rubber stamp a law passed by Parliament? Bartlett's Charles decides to find out when a bill limiting press freedoms comes his way, and the consequences are grave.
Prince William, Kate Middleton, Prince Harry and even Princess Diana appear when the drama extends into the royal family itself, as some members jockey for their places in history; some aim to hang onto anachronistic traditions, and others hope to extricate themselves from living under the constant scrutiny that every royal must endure.
Says Bathurst, “It stands alone not only as a battle about the constitution, but it's also a family drama. It's very much like a small family play with very, very high stakes.”
In addition to exploring issues big and small, Mike Bartlett also set out to challenge himself and the actors by writing King Charles III in blank verse. Though verse is somewhat unusual for a contemporary play, Bathurst has found the language has made all the difference in his performance: “The actor only has to make sense of the language for it to be totally clear...and for the verse to be attended to completely,” he explained. “What it does is it gives you a much greater connection with the audience. It sharpens the ability of the actor to transmit what they're feeling, what they're thinking, and also what they're not prepared to say, which is as powerful as the things they do say. It does what all poetry does, which is to speak between the lines.
As much as Bathurst is committed to the character and the text, he's equally devoted to the audiences who attend his productions and strives to give each person in attendance the best experience possible.
He sees it this way, “A theater ticket is a contract between the author and the audience. They don't come to see a performance, the come to see a play. My job is to serve the play, and to engage the audience...Squeeze the play for all it's worth, and let it land in the lap of the audience. They either get moved by it, entertained by it, engaged by it.”
King Charles III is certainly packed with plenty of drama, a cast full of talented actors, and a design dream team. Audiences can look forward to compelling performances, a well-crafted script and the stunning production values Chicago Shakespeare Theater is known to offer. With Robert Bathurst anchoring the production in the title role, King Charles III is sure to be a theatrical treat that will be remembered long after the metaphorical curtain comes down.
Concludes Bathurst, “It is, I hope, a very engaging entertainment.”
King Charles III is currently running at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through January 15, 2017.
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
Actor Robert Bathurst in the role of Charles, Prince of Wales in the Shakespeare Theater Production of King Charles III this winter.