Charles III by Mike Bartlett, BBC2, 10th May 2017. Dir. Rupert Goold, Drama Republic Ltd. for the BBC.
In 2014 Mike Bartlett finished his play Charles III, and it was premiered at London’s Almeida Theatre. From there it went to the West End and Broadway, with further tours of the UK and on to Sydney, Australia. In 2015 it was adapted as a radio drama for BBC Radio 3 with the original cast, and aired twice. Last night a TV adaptation was shown on BBC2 with Tim Pigott-Smith in the title role.
The play imagines that in a very few years’ time, on the death of Queen Elizabeth II, her son, the present Prince of Wales, becomes king. Almost immediately on his succession, however, he is expected to give Royal Assent to a bill before Parliament that would restrict the freedom of the press. His refusal to do so sparks a constitutional crisis. Mike Bartlett wrote the play largely in blank verse – iambic pentameter – as Shakespeare might have done, and takes the plot on a very Shakespearean journey. There are political manoeuvrings, treacheries, and a ghost who gives the same prediction of greatness to Charles and his son William. There are no pitched battles – Charles has no opportunity to offer his kingdom for a horse – but there is metaphorical blood.
Hearing the play on radio gives it intimacy. Characters can talk quietly in an imagined corner, or even whisper in your ear, and the full value of the language can be appreciated. The iambic pentameter, though subtle, is more obvious, and it draws the listener into its rhythm until it feels prefectly natural. Though there are Shakespearean constructions in word choice – a royal person might address another as a ‘good’ or ‘gentle’ prince, for example – the play’s language is not larded with archaisms. This is not a Shakespearean spoof, and modern usage fits into the blank verse as though made for it.
On television it loses something. The TV adaptation does not have the intimacy of the radio version, and because it uses real or realistic settings and footage of Buckingham Palace etc., we are no longer within the ‘wooden O’ of the stage for which it was originally written. The production is obliged to be more visual. Tanks rolling through the gates of the Palace have to be shown rather than spoken about. Lines are lost and the importance of the pentameter is downplayed, to the extent that when a scene does end with a rhymed couplet it hits the viewer with a bang.
But by no means is all the play’s power lost. For a start, it is impossible to praise too highly the acting of the cast. It would be too easy to say, for example, that Richard Goulding does not look much like the real-life Prince Harry, but this is a play not a mimicry. Tim Pigott-Smith is one of the country’s finest actors, and is brilliant as Charles. There are good parts for women. Margot Leicester as Camilla is in the role of a supportive wife to Charles, a character that is perhaps the nearest the play has to a female cipher. Tamara Lawrance’s Jess – Harry’s black, working-class, republican girlfriend – is assertive, almost to the point of being the conscience of the play. Charlotte Riley’s Kate is the motive force behind Prince William, and Priyanga Burford plays Mrs Stevens, Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons and the real agent provocateur of the crisis, with great subtlety.
Perhaps the most compelling part of the adaptation is the peripeteia, the scene in a darkened room, with most of the principals present, where Charles agrees to abdicate in favour of his son. This will have viewers enthralled. The feeling of a dramatic space – a ‘stage’ if you wish – returns to the production, and the rhythm of the language brings out the tension of the scene.
What can I knock a star off for? Well I have already pointed out the compromises that have to be made when a stage play is adapted for television. I have to say I found Harry’s eventual rejection of Jess to be less convincing than it was in the radio version. He appeared regretful and rather shamefaced, whilst on the radio it was a cynical dumping because loyalty to the ‘family firm’ of the House of Windsor had won him round.
The programme is still available on BBC iPlayer at the time of writing, and I dare say it will be repeated by the BBC and on PBS. Don’t miss it.
A footnote: a Tory MP objected to the presence of the ghost of Diana, the late Princess of Wales. Get a life, pal.