King Charles III, a filmed adaptation of the London production of Mike Bartlett’s Tony-nominated play, airs this Sunday night at 9:00 p.m. EDT as a one-off episode of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. The play was a success on the West End and on Broadway, with Timothy Pigott-Smith in the lead role. Here in DC, Robert Joy played the nearly crowned monarch, in Shakespeare Theatre’s production earlier this year.
King Charles III is a “future history” about Prince Charles’ ascension to the throne after Queen Elizabeth’s death. Charles wants to be more than a mere ceremonial figurehead, leading to his refusal to provide a routine signature to a bill restricting press freedom. Matters escalate, leading to national confrontation with the government and within the royal family.
The film aired Wednesday night on BBC2 and received good to excellent reviews from the critics. The Telegraph described it as “a majestic, unmissable drama” and gave it a 5-star rating. Other reviewers were more measured, stating that the play’s faux-Shakespearean blank verse feels more awkward on film than on stage.
However, the reception was not without its detractors. Some viewers found troubling the fact that the filmed production opens with a depiction of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral (not part of the play). The most divisive aspect involves having a ghost of the late Princess Diana haunting Charles and her sons. The portrayals of real life characters, especially a scheming Duchess Kate, also provoked uproar among the BBC2 audience, as was a glancing reference questioning Prince Harry’s parentage.
The critics generally agree that one reason to see King Charles III is Timothy Pigott-Smith’s towering performance of the conflicted new monarch, whose emotions are seen even better with the use of close-ups. Tragically, Mr. Pigott-Smith passed away last month while preparing for a tour of Death of a Salesman.
The production features many of the original West End / Broadway cast members, including those playing Charles, Camilla (Margot Leicester), William (Oliver Chris), Harry (Richard Goulding) and the Prime Minister (Adam James). New actors include Charlotte Riley as a Duchess Kate and Tamara Lawrance as Harry’s unconventional new girlfriend Jess.
Mike Bartlett’s witty play has also been streamlined into 90 minutes, versus the stage production that ran over 2 ½ hours counting the intermission. With its royal settings and large-scale pageantry, the play would seem to lend itself well to a filmed version. Those who have seen the staged version can be the judge.
Check your local PBS listings for details.