There is much more to Jelena Andzic’s set design of a large circular room made entirely of very tall, concealed revolving doors than just ways to get the cast on and off stage in “King Charles III” at Clarence Brown Theatre.
The “revolving doors” image is an inescapable metaphor for the storyline in this look at the tradition-bound institution of the British monarchy. Michael Bartlett’s up-to-the-moment look at a possible future for the monarchy was written in 2014.
References to Shakespeare’s great plays about the making of kings are heard plainly in “King Charles III.” The play’s central theme is the attempt by Parliament to curb freedom of the press, a current hot topic in the United States both because of President Trump’s constant assault on the press as “fake news” and the immediacy of Jeff Bezos’ response to the National Enquirer and its publisher, David Pecker.
The passing of an era is clear the moment the lights come up. Queen Elizabeth II is dead. Her Union Jack-draped casket sits on the marbled floor of an otherwise empty ceremonial room. Masses of mourners are projected floor-to-ceiling on the stately set.
Director John Sipes wastes little time getting down to business. There’s no time to mourn for the new King Charles III, played with regal British reserve by Kurt Rhoads, as Prime Minister Tristan Evans, played officiously by Michael Elich, comes calling with the request that the new king sign into law Parliament’s just-passed legislation curbing the press.
It’s just a formality the queen never failed to execute, Evans explains to the new king. “This is not the way a just society should work,” Charles responds.
On deeply held principles, Charles refuses to sign, even though “as a king, I’m a weakling shadow of what went before,” he notes with a confidence Evans did not expect. “Without my voice and spirit, I am dust.”
Without spoiling the plot that makes “King Charles III” worth seeing, Charles exercises power that President Trump no doubt wishes he had.
Entanglements within the royal family play no small part in this play. Prince Harry (Collin Andrews) decides to leave the royal family for a young English hipster, Jess (Brenda Orellana), who is (wouldn’t you know it) being blackmailed for salacious photographs.
Harry reveals this to the king, who realizes that coming to her defense could spring Parliament’s trap. Charles explains that such things are the price of freedom.
William (Brian Gligor) and Catherine (Abbey Siegworth) scheme a very unprincely coup. But it’s Nance Williamson’s channeling of Camilla that comes close to stealing the show.
No one would have missed a long, dull sequence in Act I that unnecessarily stretches out the play.
“King Charles III” plays on Clarence Brown Theatre’s Main Stage at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays through Feb. 23, with 2 p.m. performances on Sundays, Feb. 17 and 24. Tickets may be purchased by calling 865-974-5161. Info here.