‘Future history’: how Charles III first trod the boards of London stage

<span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Stage and film dramas have fictionalised the lives of Queen Elizabeth II and Diana, Princess of Wales, but rarely has Prince Charles been placed centre stage. The few writers who have imagined him as a future king have tended to portray him as an enlightened hero, a monarch who might stand up to a malign political regime in Westminster.

Eight years ago, the playwright Mike Bartlett, perhaps best known for creating the popular television series Doctor Foster, surprised London theatre audiences with King Charles III.

Written in blank verse, like a modern-day Shakespearean history play, the acclaimed drama told of the accession to the throne of the Queen’s eldest son. This weekend, Bartlett has watched scenes he had dared to envisage for the stage now playing out in real life.

“Sitting at my desk on Friday, I could hear the bells ring out, as they do in my play,” he said. “These first days of hearing the words of King Charles III spoken on television have been strange, along with growing talk of the funeral.”

Writers, Bartlett suspects, have generally not been drawn to describe such an alien world, despite the fact that even when he wrote his own play it was clear that the Queen would die fairly soon and that her son would accede.

In Bartlett’s work, which was premiered in 2014 at the Almeida theatre in Islington, north London, with the late Tim Pigott-Smith in the title role, the new king takes issue with proposed government legislation to limit press freedom. He withstands pressure from parliament and ultimately, from within the royal family. A piece of what Bartlett calls “future history”, it also contains some uncanny predictions.

“Some of the specifics I got wrong,” said Bartlett. “Prince Harry did not go on to marry a republican Londoner, as in my play, but many of the attitudes and basic psychology were there.”

An evocation of national mourning after the Queen’s funeral opens his drama. “It was one of the things the director, Rupert Goold, was so good at. He made sure we touched on the strong feelings of the country, although I was wondering why we needed all that when my play is about the decisions the King takes later.”

Dominic West as Prince Charles in The Crown
Dominic West as Prince Charles in the fifth season of Netflix’s The Crown. Photograph: Netflix/PA

But Bartlett was not the first to dream up a new king who would go against the legislature to protect his people. In 1993, a television drama adapted by Andrew Davies from Michael Dobbs’s sequel to the original House of Cards was screened. To Play the King saw Michael Kitchen cast as a future monarch locked in a power struggle with a machiavellian Conservative prime minister, Francis Urquhart.

Projecting this role of public champion on to King Charles is not difficult, thinks Bartlett. He said: “The question is already there; how does a man who is so committed to certain causes now put all that down? In the case of the Queen, no one really knew what she thought. But because of the life the Prince of Wales led, we know his views.”

The mystique of the monarchy is significant: “The King, after all, was supposed to be appointed by God and even to be rather godlike himself. But we are seeing the last vestiges of all that, since we now all know more than we want to know, in some ways, about their personal lives.”

Bartlett suspects this is why he set his play in a time to come: “The future is still a mystery. Especially now, as Charles has become king at a time of such national unease, when we are questioning our identity.”

More often, depictions of the former Prince of Wales have presented him as part of an evolving family saga. In Steven Knight’s screenplay for the intense film Spencer, starring Kristen Stewart as Diana, the actor Jack Farthing appears as her unsupportive husband. Josh O’Connor also took on the role of the uncomfortable young prince in The Crown, Peter Morgan’s Netflix series. He is to be followed by Dominic West, who will play opposite Imelda Staunton as the Queen in the fifth season of the hit show, which is due to be broadcast in November.

Morgan first handed the part of the future king to Alex Jennings, who played him in The Queen, the film he wrote for director Stephen Frears. With Helen Mirren in the role of the monarch, it arguably started the bold trend for representing the contemporary royal family on screen.

West initially found it “disconcerting” to get the part of Charles in The Crown: “I kept telling the producers that they had cast the wrong person. But they explained that this was not a show of imitations. That was difficult though, as this is a real person who is hugely famous and recognisable.”

The issue of impersonation, or even the kind of satirical caricature seen in Harry Enfield’s portrayal of Charles in the television sitcom The Windsors, has to be dealt with by anyone who tackles the part.

Josh O’Connor as the young Prince Charles in The Crown
Josh O’Connor as the young Prince Charles in season four of The Crown. Photograph: Alex Bailey/AP

“Tim Pigott-Smith did not do an impression in my play, and there was no mockery in it,” said Bartlett. “He didn’t feel he had to be faithful to the real man in that way because the focus is the constitutional role rather than his private life.

“The verse couplets helped with that. And there is a speech where he talks about his Spitting Image puppet. That was so we could dispense with the idea of caricature and leave space for the actor.”

The playwright received no royal feedback at the time of the first production of King Charles III, although there was a suggestion that Clarence House had taken note when word came through that Pigott-Smith should not be wearing a wedding ring, since the real prince did not.

“It might be worth watching the filmed version on BBC iPlayer now, as I doubt it will be performed again for quite a while,” Bartlett suggested.