Magazine article The New Yorker

Future History

Magazine article The New Yorker

Future History

Article excerpt

FUTURE HISTORY

"King Charles III," which is currently playing at the Music Box Theatre, imagines the state of Britain and of the British monarchy shortly after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. The play, by the thirty-five-year-old British playwright Mike Bartlett, is rife with Shakespearean references: aptly billed as a "future history play" and written in blank verse, it features an unsteady monarch, a scheming Duchess, and an exhortatory ghost who sows familial discord. What, then, might a Shakespeare scholar make of Bartlett's effort? Enter James Shapiro--the Larry Miller Professor of English, at Columbia University, and the author of "The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606"--who was invited to attend a recent performance.

"My first impression was to consider what's Shakespearean about it, and I started reading it the wrong way," Shapiro, who had read the play earlier, confessed, as he advanced down the aisle. "I was scanning the lines to see whether they follow the same metrical rules as Shakespeare--the ba-dump, ba-dump, ba-dump . And that is not what this script is about. Yeah, it's iambic pentameter--but it turned out to be Shakespearean in much more unexpected and hard-to-capture ways." He looked at the Playbill cover--it features a picture of Charles with his mouth taped. "It is a great succession play," he went on. "From the beginning of his career, up until 'Hamlet,' Shakespeare made a living writing succession plays. It's tougher to do than you think. Especially with a play like 'Richard III,' where everybody knows how it ends, there have to be twists. With this play, you kind of know which way it is heading, but you can't figure out how it's going to get there."

The house lights dimmed. There was Tim Piggott-Smith, a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, as Charles, twisting his signet ring in emulation of royal habit, and soliloquizing--"My life has been a ling'ring for the throne"--in a voice more pleasingly mellifluous than the real Prince's regal lockjaw. Shapiro snorted with laughter at some lines ("Shall I be Mother?" asks Charles, when pouring tea for his Prime Minister), and nodded at others, including a scene in which Richard Goulding as Prince Harry, disconsolate in his role as "a ginger joke," encounters a kebab seller who compares the state of the nation to the shaved meat on his spit: "When does Britain get so cut down that it's not Britain anymore? …

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