THESE PAPER BULLETS!
by Rollin Jones
KING CHARLES III
by Mike Bartlett
King Charles III by Mike Bartlett and These Paper Bullets! By Rollin Jones (with songs by Billie Joe Armstrong) are both imports—the first from the West End, the second from the Yale Rep (by way of the Geffen Playhouse in L.A.)—and both play in the same sandbox: Shakespearean pastiche.
Reviewing these can’t be done with anything near approaching bulletproof consumer advocacy. The fact that these are transfers means that lots of people liked them. Thus you’ll find my opinion somewhat in the minority as regards both. So here it’s not so much whether I’m on target or off the mark, but whether what I have to say may be in sync with your own sensibility. Your mileage may vary.
These Paper Bullets! is a mod, 60s rock-era retake of Much Ado About Nothing. Similar plot developments plus parallel characters and relationships swirl around a fab four rock group called The Quatros, who are clearly a riff on the Beatles. There’s a certain amount of fun in the idea and the wordplay, but I found it all very effortful, in not only the writing, but the playing (direction by Jackson Gay) which kept reaching for laughs rather than character objectives. In its use of original songs, too (to serve as the catalog of the band), it strives for something of a book musical ambiance (combined with Shakespearean commentary/mood-setting), but the play isn’t one, nor is it structured like one, and that confuses audience expectations (the night I attended, the laughs were there, but they were a long time arriving, as the audience tried to adjust its bearings and find the perspective). It’s more fun than an academic exercise, and after a while it does kind of wear down your resistence—but really by wearing it down—but for me, in the end, I couldn’t regard it as much more than an academic exercise.
King Charles III is an altogether different exercise. It aspires to take a Shakespearean filter, and Shakespearean language to modern day politics (replete with modern day lingo, tech devices and reference points), posit an alternate future in which Prince Charles has become King of England, and then chronicle the forces that take him down, for a kind of future historical tragedy. But unlike the plays from which author Bartlett takes inspiration, King Charles III also dramatizes a bloodless coup, one whose machinations reflect present day politics; the lethal weapons are words and documents, alliances and betrayals.
All well and good, and under the direction of Rupert Goold, the cast, led by Tim Piggot-Smith in the title role, does an exemplary job. It’s all quite stylish.
But beneath that, I kept feeling under-nourished, for this reason: In the play, King Charles refuses to sign into law a bill that will restrict journalistic access. He states his position, the opposition state theirs, and then the machinations begin—with the issue never again addressed.
Now you can argue that the touchpoint of controversy is merely intended as a McGuffin, a simple trigger to enable the rest of the story to proceed, but I found myself unable to take the ride whole-heartedly, because the issue itself had no personalization—I didn’t see played out what might be at stake if Charles were deposed. Maybe I’ve spent too many hours watching The West Wing, but yeah, in an Aaron Sorkin script, or indeed any bit of agit-prop dramatic writing that I admire, if a guy is willing to risk it all or fall on his sword over an issue, I need to know why I should care that he does. I need to know that we’re worse off if he’s defeated. For me it’s not tragedy enough that he’s a man of good, if stubborn will, loopholed out of his position. The tragedy has to be that in the relatively democratic structure of a constitutional monarchy, the circumvention of law is not only possible, but a harbinger of worse to come for all.
Bartlett toys a little with the lines that separate royal from elected official from commoner, but mostly toward the end of showing how easily pawns are made of the innocent, and how easily ideals are abandoned with the application of pressure on the weak-willed. And that’s all very familiar.
I just didn’t care about the tragedy, because I never saw nobility thwarted; only a kind of foolish, naïve faith in the infallible protections of a constitutionally-grounded system. Which, inevitably, because otherwise no drama, prove not all that darned infallible.
And that, well, you know. Feh.
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