Jan. 7th, 2017

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Given that Brian and I are both big fans of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, I perhaps should not have been surprised to find myself deluged in mailed flyers for their new season - and specifically, for their 30th anniversary season special of $99 for tickets to three shows. The date and seat options were limited, of course, but with some finagling I found a set of dates when we were free, and thus was Brian's Christmas present taken care of.

Last night was our first show, King Charles III, a "future history" of Great Britain; basically a speculative work on what the near future might hold for the British monarchy, written a la Shakespeare (although in truth it hewed closer to the style of his tragedies than his histories). Queen Elizabeth II has just died, and after a lifetime of waiting, Charles III has ascended to the throne, just in time for the passage of a bill by Parliament that would severely restrict freedom of the press. The Prime Minister, knowing Charles' long and contentious relationship with the tabloids and confident in two centuries' worth of precedent, is understandably dumbstruck when Charles refuses to sign the bill into law, thus throwing into question the long-held (but nonetheless relatively recent) tradition of royal political neutrality. Parliament doubles down, the King digs in his heels, and events spiral outward from there, with various family members reflecting on both their duty to Great Britain and the opportunities afforded them by the conflict, even as the people, cleanly split on the issue, grow restive, organizing protests and counter-protests all through the British Empire.

I hugely admired the intelligence of the play; political intrigue is a favorite subject of mine, and both the playwright and the actors did a fabulous job demonstrating the complex (and often conflicting) principles and desires that drive each of the major players to their respective conclusions. I particularly enjoyed the uncertainty around the title character - is he, as he claims, driven purely by his faith in the necessity of a free press to a functioning democracy? Is he secretly enjoying his time in the spotlight, after having played second fiddle for so long? Is his obstinacy truly the result of closely-held belief, or is he also trying to make his mark on history in the relatively short time allowed him on the throne? Even juicier were the reflections on the role of royalty and government in British society. Is it the royal family's place to influence politics? If they refuse to take a stand on important issues, do they serve any purpose other than hollowed-out puppets of Parliament? What about their value as figureheads, standing for the continuation of Britain? What principles are worth the upending of political and social custom to defend? Which is more important in government, principle or stability? Can there be stability in a democratic society? What good is continuation if the country has no integrity left to carry on defending?

To its credit, the play balances its Serious Political Commentary with a healthy dose of humanity - a subplot regarding a love affair of Prince Harry's, and the meticulously drawn character of King Charles and his interactions with various politicians and retainers, bring some much-needed humor to the proceedings. That's not to say that it's perfect; the aforementioned subplot is a little underdeveloped, and (much to my personal annoyance) the female characters are relegated to stock Shakespearean tropes with no real arcs of their own. But even with those frustrations, I appreciated the show; it may hold few solutions for current anxiety-inducing political climate, but it's still reassuring to see that others are asking the same questions. Highly recommended.


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