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‘King Charles III’: When the Queen Dies, It’s Not Just Sad; It’s a Shakespearean Tragedy

The late Tim Pigott-Smith and writer Mike Bartlett on imagining Charles’ first days as King, Harry’s royal scandal, and Kate Middleton killing a soliloquy — all in blank verse.

"King Charles III"

“King Charles III”

Robert Viglasky/Drama Republic for BBC and MASTERPIECE

<<Page 1: The Queen Is Dead; Long Live the King

In the movie, Harry seeks to find a life outside being royal and lands in the arms of Jess (Tamara Lawrence), a commoner who opens his eyes up to living a less scrutinized, responsible life. Unfortunately, his relationship eventually draws the interest of the tabloids, which does not please the rest of the royals. Enter Kate, who shows to have far more mettle and opinions than we’re led to believe from the pretty smiling face we see in the media.

“Her actions make the audience think that she’s Lady Macbeth, that she’s bitchy and she’s scheming,” said Bartlett. “I got to the point where I wanted her to come out. What she comes out and says is, ‘You all think that because I’m a woman. If I was a man, you wouldn’t think it. I’m a woman in a man’s world, and you’re thinking I’m Lady Macbeth because of all of it, but actually all I am is intelligent. I’ve made a decision. I’m doing my job, and I’m doing it well, and I’m not going to stop.’ She’s sort of defiant. I think that’s a really important turning point in the story.”

Viewers learn exactly what’s on her mind because Kate, like Charles, gets to have one of the few soliloquies in the movie. As in the play, Kate breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, but since it’s on television, her gaze straight into the camera is both intimate and unnerving. Take a look:

“What’s great is the moments like when Kate does the soliloquy to camera. You go, ‘Oh, I just don’t think I’ve quite seen that before,’” he said. “Everything I do is trying to do something that’s innovative and unusual, and a verse drama on television hasn’t been done for a while. I don’t think anyone’s really going to notice that it’s verse drama, but actually it is. What’s interesting about this is that it gives the dialogue scale in a way. Often dialogue is quite naturalistic on TV, but with this, it gives it real power.”

If you didn’t catch that until Bartlett pointed it out, “King Charles III” is also written like a Shakespearean play because it’s written in blank verse, a metrical form of unrhymed poetry that is often in iambic pentameter. The unstressed-stressed syllabic pattern isn’t obvious for much of the movie, but adds a lyricism to the dialogue, such as in Charles’ speech here:

“But now I’ll rise to how things have to be.
The Queen is dead; Long live the King — that’s me.”

While the play had to be a living creation to keep up with Harry’s maturation and William and Kate’s growing family (yes, George and Charlotte show their little cherub faces in this), Bartlett decided not to explicitly address Brexit in his update.

“In the play, half the country agrees with Charles when he does what he does, and half doesn’t; it splits right down the middle,” said Bartlett. “That’s exactly the same as Brexit, and it leads to a divided country. Everyone’s talking about the need to bring the country back together. Then of course, with Brexit, that’s exactly what we saw.

“There’s no explicit parallels, but I think it’s interesting with [the United States] and with Britain that maybe five years ago, we were far more confident that our countries were stable. Then these events have happened, and we’re so vulnerable to, in this country, a Russian takeover, or in Britain, changing the basis on which our country operates from when I was born. It happened overnight, and now I don’t know what country I live in. But the play talks about it. Exactly it talks about this.”

Tim Pigott-Smith, "King Charles III"

Tim Pigott-Smith, “King Charles III”

PBS/BBC

Eventually, “King Charles III” as a play will stop evolving significantly. That point is when reality catches up to the narrative, when the Queen dies in real life.

“For the moment, it’s a future history play. Then it’ll become an alternative history play, what could have been,” said Bartlett. “But in a way, I sort of hope that with these things, like with ‘Richard III’ or ‘Richard II’ or the Shakespeare histories, you don’t really care exactly what happened. I sort of hope that that’ll be the same with this, that even once history advances past it, the story’s still a good story, and it still speaks about the things underneath like inheritance, and fathers and sons, and betrayal, and all those Shakespearean themes.”

READ MORE: ‘Press’: Newspaper Industry Drama Coming to PBS From ‘King Charles III’ Playwright

While “King Charles III” has received rave reviews worldwide as a play, Bartlett hasn’t had any personal feedback from Buckingham Palace. Getting the Royals to a theater outing would have been quite the production, but with the movie airing on PBS (and on the BBC in England), this is their chance to catch a glimpse of their future, albeit a rather foreboding one.

At the time of the interview, Pigott-Smith had just learned that he was going to be awarded an OBE, a medal naming him an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

“I’m really hoping that when I go to the palace, Charles gives me the thing,” said Pigott-Smith, who received some intel from his friend, comedian Eddie Izzard. “Eddie knows [Prince Charles] reasonably well and said that he wished he’d been able to see the play. Well, he’ll be able to now. Perhaps he won’t want to give me the honor then. But he comes out of the play very sympathetically.”

Pigott-Smith died in April, one month after receiving his OBE and just one month shy of seeing “King Charles III” premiere on TV. The movie airs on PBS’ Masterpiece on Sunday at 9 p.m.

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Tim Pigott-Smith, "King Charles III"

Tim Pigott-Smith, “King Charles III”

PBS/BBC

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