Ng Yi-Sheng
by Ng Yi-Sheng

The British royals are dinosaurs, and I mean that in the best way possible. They’re these fascinating, colossal, violent beasts from distant history—behold them as warmongers in Shakespearean dramas like King Lear and Richard III; or witness them as wife-killers and man-eaters in modern shows like The Tudors, Wolf Hall, Elizabeth and Reign.

These days, however, they’ve been reduced to museum pieces: majestic but harmless skeletons of their former selves. True, there are still gripping, domestic tales to be told about Elizabeth II, as seen in films like The Queen and TV series like The Crown. But we don’t see royals trying to change the world anymore. The Queen’s accepted her role as a national figurehead: someone who stands aside from the action and waves to us in white gloves.

So it’s rather thrilling to see a show that combines the epic stakes of the old royals with the contemporary scandal of the new ones. King Charles III was created as a stage play by British playwright Bartlett in 2015; this year, the BBC turned it into a 90-minute TV movie.

King Charles III

The story takes place in the wake of the Queen’s death. Prince Charles is now King Charles (played by the recently deceased Tim Pigott-Smith), and he’s taken up the ritual of meeting with his Prime Minister (Adam James) for tea once a week. But after so long waiting in the wings, he feels desperate to do something significant. He refuses to sign a government bill that restricts press freedoms—and all hell breaks loose from there.

One of the magical things about this film is that it’s almost all in blank verse, just like the plays of Shakespeare. With all the characters speaking poetry, it’s easy to draw connections between them and the Bard’s most famous heroes and villains. The frustrated Charles is a double of the mad king of King Lear; Prince William (Oliver Chris) is the young Prince Hal of Henry IV; while Kate Middleton (Charlotte Riley) is the conniving Lady Macbeth of Macbeth. There’s even a vengeful ghost just like in Hamlet—though in this case, it arrives in the form of Princess Diana (Katie Brayben).

Mind you, a few things have been lost in the adaptation from stage to screen. I had the luck to watch the play on the West End, and I’ve noticed huge chunks of text missing in this version, including a whole scene in which Kate drops the F-bomb. Furthermore, the sequences that aren’t in poetry now seem especially out of place—the first kiss between Prince Harry (Richard Goulding) and his commoner girlfriend Jess (Tamara Lawrence) falls rather flat.

The film version’s added plenty of lovely touches, though. We’re now able to see the splendour of the royal palaces and ceremonies, the chaos of the crowds at Buckingham Palace, the close-ups of the actors’ faces as they flash from fury to desperation to shock as their loved ones betray them.

Some changes to the cast are also welcome. The Leader of the Opposition in Parliament has morphed from an old white man to a young South Asian woman (Priyanga Burford). Now, when the character manipulates Charles, there’s a seductive subversiveness to their relationship: she’s a representative of the colonised classes, exercising influence over the very centre of the old British empire.

The heart of the story, of course, is Charles himself, reduced from a prince to a pitiful old man, fuming against the universe. He’s a dinosaur, trying to prove that he can hold power in the 21st century. Watching Pigott-Smith’s wild-eyed face, I recall so many other old men—relatives, politicians, strangers—who’ve battled against mortality and irrelevance, regardless of the cost to themselves and others. I’m also reminded that one day, I too could be an aged madman like this.

Then I think of Queen Elizabeth herself, still serene in the seventy-fifth year of her reign, and her grandson William, and his equally media-savvy wife Kate. They’ve survived by being neither warriors nor martyrs. They’re mannequins: living fossils of tradition.

And I wonder which is worse. To be remembered for trying to change the world? Or to be respected for having done nothing?