King Charles III, BBC2, 10th May 2017
It was slightly tucked away on a workaday Wednesday, but BBC2’s televisation of Mike Bartlett’s play was eagerly anticipated by theatre lovers. Partly this was down to an eagerness to see how a very theatrical play translated to television, but mostly to see what proved to be the last performance of the much-missed Tim Pigott-Smith in the title role.
And what a towering performance it was, by a man who seems to have been born to play kings – and this performance rightly had a touch of Lear about it, especially at the moment Charles realises he will have to give up his long-awaited throne. It was a detailed performance too, with the slowness of his hand as he signs the abdication a telling touch.
He has good support from the rest of the cast too, especially Oliver Chris and Charlotte Riley as William and Kate (or the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as they should be addressed by us plebs). Riley does a good job of conveying both the human and the scheming parts of Kate’s nature that lie beneath her blandly perfect exterior. Oliver Chris’ William starts by being a bit wet, with his wife pulling the strings, but gradually finds his own resolution and ambition. The sheer viciousness that he puts into the line “You have felt your age” is magnificent.
The play does a great job of illustrating the corrosive and corrupting nature of power, but I’m not entirely convinced by the translation to television… I preferred the stage version. There are several reasons for this – firstly, to make the two hour plus play into an acceptable length for television, many of the speeches have been cut down, losing some of the rhythm and beauty of Bartlett’s verse. I also found I missed the stylised set, with its brick walls. Perhaps it’s just a case of something imagined being more powerful than something actually seen, but I found the exquisitely choreographed stage riot/protest scene which began the second half of the play to be more powerful than the ‘riot-lite’ montage of the TV adaptation. I also found some of the background music a bit much at times – and I wish they’d let Charlotte Riley’s Kate stay still while delivering her Lady Macbeth-like soliloquy about power and ambition. The movement they added made it look like they were trying too hard to make it ‘televisual’, and stripped the speech of the concentrated power it had on stage. With an actor of Riley’s talent, you don’t need fuss.
There are of course compensations for some of the losses in translation from stage to screen: the lovely cutaway of young Prince George chewing happily on a croissant while his horrified parents watch Charles’ dissolution of parliament on an iPad, the fantastic close ups of Oliver Chris and Tim Piggott-Smith as they confront each other during the coronation (for which I’m glad they kept the Latin Te Deum). And, of course, the great compensation is to have a record of Tim Pigott-Smith’s magnificent interpretation of the lead role in a great modern play.