Queen Elizabeth is dead, and now—after decades spent waiting in the wings—her son Charles is ready to take the throne. This isn’t the latest dispatch from Buckingham Palace, but instead the plot of the Olivier Award-winning new Broadway show from playwright Mike Bartlett, King Charles III. The dark comedy, which landed in New York from London earlier this year, takes a smart, funny and compelling look at the modern state of the monarchy, and asks whether it’s made to survive another generation.
Actor Oliver Chris, who plays Prince William, might sport a passing resemblance to the Duke of Cambridge, but that’s about where the similarities end. Here, Chris explains what’s made the show a hit on two continents, why American audiences are smarter than he anticipated and which cast member found himself dealing with a real-life case of mistaken identity.
This show was a big hit in the U.K. and now it’s open on Broadway. Did you have to dumb it down for a country that doesn’t know anything about having a monarchy?
This is the second show I’ve brought to Broadway, and it’s been a very different process for both. We did change some things, because we thought we could make some things more understandable for American audiences. But we’ve had three weeks of previews, and over the course of that time we’ve mostly been putting things back to the way they were. So what you’re seeing is pretty much exactly the same show that we did in London.
You guys reversed the changes?
When you’re bringing a show to Broadway, there’s obviously a lot of pressure to be a success, and if you want to be successful you have to be understandable. So, I think the first thing people decide is that you have to change things. But British audiences aren’t stupid, and American audiences aren’t stupid, and they pay a lot of money to come see the show so they’re going to sit there and be engaged. Also, I think that people enjoy being culturally stretched, that’s why they go to the theater. You can sit at home and watch Game of Thrones all you want, and it’s great, it’s brilliant, but you come to the theater because you want to be engaged and enlivened and you want to have your emotions played at like a harp.
The show got a rabid reception right off the bat in London, didn’t it?
Yeah, absolutely. The show has had three different incarnations: the first place we did was a small, art-house theater in North London and then we did a production in the West End and now Broadway. And every time we’ve gotten a reception, it’s just gotten better.
What is it about the show that makes people so excited?
This whole play is all about the writing; it’s just a beautifully written story. It’s also this incredible idea of a future history play: the play is based on Shakespearean tragedy, so a lot of it is written blank verse and it’s written kind of like it could be Henry V, but it’s about our current royal family shortly after the queen dies, and about Prince Charles after a lifetime of waiting to ascend to the throne. So it’s got all of those Shakespearean themes of power, and family and the state and royalty.
Have you encountered anyone who’s been horrified that you guys would kill off the Queen, that you would take liberties with these people?
It’s a controversial play. It’s quite funny before it becomes very tragic, and there have been a few staunch royalists who are very upset that we are representing these people in this way. It’s always nice to hear that we can get people angry about it, because if you’re not on someone’s toes then you’re not doing it right. Also, I think that this is a kind of an intelligent addition to the debate about the royal family, so I think the reason people have loved it so much is because it’s an intelligent investigation into what the function of the royal family is, and who the real people behind the press are.
You’ve said that people always note your passing resemblance to Prince William. Have you ever been truly mistaken for him?
I think we’re pretty safe—and hopefully I have more hair than Prince William. We haven’t been mistaken for them off stage. In fact, Richard Goulding, who plays Prince Harry, went into a deli the other day and someone asked him if he was Ed Sheeran—the only mistaken identity we’ve had off stage.