When “Charles III” trended on Twitter last Wednesday there were probably more than a few people who feared that an era had ended.
Luckily, Wednesday’s tweets were about 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, it was a more unsettling production. First staged in 2014, it 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 peeved about 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 doing impersonations 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.
And poor Harry! While the real ‘spare’ has created a role for himself, in the play he’s a ‘ginger joke’. There are really embarrassing, unbelievable scenes featuring the melancholy prince with Working Class Londoners who don’t recognize him.
There’s an unlikely love interest in a working-class woman named Jessica (Tamara Lawrance), who is not Meghan Markle, the glam, highly-educated American actress and true-life Harry girlfriend. She 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 when Catherine has actually always seemed more quietly traditional than quietly revolutionary. While the real Kate doesn’t seem career-driven or interested in public service or power, in Bartlett’s play her children’s royal status is jeopardized, and she acts to protect them and their social standing. (Charlotte Riley defended her character as ‘just being pragmatic’…)
Charles III might be a little alienating and cold for some audiences, what with its Shakespearean black verse and apparitions etc. It reminded me of Pablo Larraín’s crazy Jackie biopic: it’s a dark little 90 minute horror with powerful, haunting music (by Jocelyn Pook), set in a country in limbo and mourning.