A majestic, unmissable drama
It’s one thing to do insurrection in theatre, where self-selecting audiences pay for the privilege of having their certainties assaulted. It’s quite another on the television. King Charles III, a what-if fantasy about monarchy in meltdown after Queen Elizabeth II’s death, made for a powerful provocation onstage in London and New York. On BBC Two – hot on the heels of the Duke of Edinburgh’s retirement, and Prince Harry’s confession of mental anguish after his mother’s death – it was pure televisual gelignite. Mike Bartlett’s neo-Shakespearean mash-up imagined the downfall of an idealistic old sovereign who has spent a lifetime padded up and waiting to bat. “My life has been a ling’ring for the throne,” Tim Pigott-Smith’s Charles III soliloquised to the camera, like an Eeyorish Francis Urquhart.
His tragic flaw was the desire to be more than a face on a coin. “Shall I be mother?” he said, offering to pour a cuppa for the prime minister. If only. Instead, he triggered a constitutional emergency by refusing to sign a bill into law. In a towering performance, Pigott-Smith, who passed away last month, suggested unendurable agonies of conscience as events stripped him of his identity. Oliver Chris wavered nobly as a beanpole Duke of Cambridge. It may never be possible to view the Duchess of Cambridge in quite the same light, with Charlotte Riley riveting as a dark-eyed schemer goading her husband to patricidal treachery. It was genuinely unsettling, meanwhile, to see Diana’s all-in-white ghost (played by Katie Brayben) haunt her husband and sons. Plays don’t always migrate well to the small screen. but this was deftly filleted. Bartlett, having scripted the adultery revenge drama Doctor Foster, knows all about betrayal. It helped that these royal narratives, not to mention the splendid palaces and cathedrals where they unfold, are already the stuff of drama’s DNA. Director Rupert Goold seems to have simply carried on from his last screen gig, the Richard II instalment of The Hollow Crown, while the touching subplot involving the thwarted love of Harry (Richard Goulding) for a council-estate girl (Tamara Lawrance) evoked Princess Margaret’s romantic anguish in The Crown. Bartlett’s supremely supple ear filtered the story through digestible blank verse meshing cod-Bard and street demotic. Perhaps this majestic, unmissable drama will send new audiences back to the source for meaningful encounters with Lear, Lady M, Brutus, Prince Hal and other forebears. In the meantime, please can Tristram Evans, as played by Adam James, be prime minister for real? He seems like a safe pair of hands.