When “Charles III” trended on Twitter last Wednesday there were probably more than a few people who thought that an era had ended.
Luckily, Wednesday’s tweets were not about the accession of Charles III, but the BBC TV adaptation of Mike Bartlett’s award-winning future history play. After the glossy Netflix hit The Crown, and ITV’s vapid Victoria, King Charles III was an unsettling “what if”.
First staged in 2014, the play imagines the current Prince of Wales as a tormented ruler who causes constitutional chaos by refusing to grant Royal Assent to a bill passed by Parliament.
What draconian new law upsets Charles so much he’d risk the monarchy? Banning homeopathy on the NHS? War on one of his other pet causes? Nope, he’s royally hacked off at a nasty bit of legislation that restricts the freedom of the press. (Hooray for Charles! Journalists probably aren’t his favourite people.) Cue rioting outside the palace and Diana apparitions wafting down the corridors.
The actors in this play-turned-TV-drama make the blank verse dialogue sound easy (most of the cast are veterans from the stage run). The late Tim Pigott-Smith is Charles; Chris Oliver is a dithering, weak-willed Wills; Richard Goulding a dour, hunched, Daniel Radcliffe-like (Prince) Harry.
The cast aren’t attempting precise impersonations of their characters so much as original portrayals of real people in a parallel universe ; the only thing Goulding’s Harry shares with the prince is red hair.
Poor Harry. While the real ‘spare’ has created a role for himself, in the play he’s a ‘ginger joke’. There’s an unlikely love interest in a working-class woman named Jessica (Tamara Lawrance), and embarrassing scenes featuring the lovelorn prince with Working Class Londoners who (weirdly) don’t recognize the fifth-in-line to the throne.
Jessica is definitely no Meghan Markle, the glam, clever, highly-educated American actress and true-life Harry girlfriend. Markle came along too late to be written in, although there is Camilla (Margot Leicester), and there is Kate (Charlotte Riley.)
The BBC were criticised for portraying William’s wife as a scheming Lady Macbeth, a gimlet-eyed Duchess determined to dethrone her father-in-law. After all, Catherine has always seemed more quietly traditional than quietly revolutionary.
While the real Kate doesn’t strike me as someone particularly career-driven or interested in public service or power, in Bartlett’s play her children’s royal status is jeopardized. She’s protecting her children and their future, their social standing. As Riley has pointed out, she’s merely being ‘pragmatic’.
This is an interesting, dark little 90 minute horror which reminded me of Pablo Larraín’s crazy Jackie biopic: powerful, haunting music (by Jocelyn Pook), a country in limbo and mourning. But it’s the blank verse that gives the production a menacing, War of the Roses vibe. Just unsettling.