In 2012, playwright Mike Bartlett had a revolutionary idea: a Shakespearean drama about a king who had not yet ruled, King Charles III. But the road from first draft to Tony nomination was anything but easy. In this episode, Mike Bartlett joins host Jace Lacob to go behind-the-scenes of his controversial work. Warning: This show contains King Charles III spoilers.
[Music: MP Sting]
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Jace: I’m Jace Lacob and you’re listening to a special, bonus episode of MASTERPIECE Studio.
Charles: Such equal billing was a joy when Prince. / To share the stage did spread attention out. / But now I’ll rise to how things have to be / The queen is dead, long live the King. That’s me.
Jace: Though it certainly sounds Shakespearean, King Charles III wasn’t actually written by the Bard himself. Rather it was written by a Bart… one Mike Bartlett.
In 2014, Mike Bartlett wrote the play King Charles the III, which would later form the basis of the film. Both are set in a near future where Queen Elizabeth has died and Prince Charles must step up to the throne.
Mike wanted King Charles III to feel at home among the Shakespearean greats so he wrote the play in iambic pentameter, added in star-crossed lovers and a ghost, and turned Charles, the Prince Charles of Britain, into a tragic hero.
Mike Bartlett: That’s why I realized he could be a Shakespearean figure. The man who waited his whole life to do a job, and then only got it for a tiny period of time at the end.
Jace: But Prince Charles isn’t the only well-known royal to make an appearance.
In King Charles III, Mike Bartlett imagines William as a dutiful son, Kate as an ambitious schemer, and Harry as a prince with a heart of gold.
Mike Bartlett: but I think that’s part of the purpose of it, is to make you see these real people in a different way.
Jace: Today, we speak with Mike Bartlett about writing King Charles III, and we learn how he actually feels about the royal family.
Jace: And we are joined this week by Mike Bartlett, welcome.
Mike Bartlett (Mike): Hi.
Jace: What was the impetuous behind writing King Charles III and where did the initial idea come from?
Mike: So when I write plays, I always think I’ve got a play when I’ve got the form and the content arrive at the same time. With this, I wanted to write about Charles, I wanted to write about the moment when he becomes King. And then I thought, “Well, hang on. He should be a Shakespearean, tragic hero, and that should be the play. It should have verse, it should have a subplot with Harry…”
It all came quite quickly and then I realized that I would then have to write that, and then I didn’t do anything for two years because it was too scary. But the idea came quite quickly and then the actual writing was the hard bit.
Jace: So you had a very low bar for yourself, apparently.
Mike: I always have a very low bar.
Mike: And I’m pretty likely to clear it. Exactly, yeah.
Jace: The play is written in iambic pentameter; there are five acts; a ghost even appears. It’s clear that you wrote this very much as a Shakespearean drama. What were you trying to communicate by writing it this way and do those trappings perhaps give the play a sense of timelessness?
Mike: I don’t know about timelessness, but what I found really interesting is in most of my plays the dialogue is quite quick, it’s quite Mamet-y, Aaron Sorkin-y, but with iambic pentameter you can’t do that anymore. It’s like someone had taken away that tool from me and I had to start again. And that means you end up writing long speeches using metaphors to talk about psychology, which sounds like it might get very indulgent and boring but it actually means that you start writing in a completely different way, and characters can explain what they’re thinking, which hardly ever happens.
Charles: Potential holds appeal since in its castle walls / One is protected from the awful shame / Of failure.
Mike: And the other thing that I came to realize is that there’s a reason that Shakespeare used verse to be the language of Kings, and that when you go to the common people it goes back into prose, is you then get a real distinction of status in the play, and ability to represent all of society. For me, that works really well, that you really believe in the status of the King through the fact that he talks in a slightly different way.
Jace: I love that.
There are glimmers of Shakespeare throughout, but it’s thoroughly modern. How does our knowledge of Shakespeare inform the drama here?
Mike: I only hope it informs it as much as you want it to. In the theater, I never wanted it to be, and I don’t think it was, the sort of play where Shakespeare geeks would have a little giggle to themselves about certain things and everyone else would feel excluded and stupid, because I would be the one who would feel excluded and stupid because I don’t know that much about it, really. There are literal references, if you want them, but they’re sort of like Easter eggs.
Jace: Now, it’s presented as a future history play, one that feels all the more timely these days in the light of Brexit. Do you fear that this might be what comes to pass: a constitutional crisis, or even civil war, once Charles does take the throne?
Mike: Well, when I started writing it, the idea of a constitutional crisis or a civil war felt very outlandish and unimaginable. Since Brexit, the idea that the foundations of the country are vulnerable feels very present, very possible. That the country that we all grew up in suddenly could cease to exist if something could happen– That’s certainly how I feel about Brexit. It’s a new world. I don’t know what it is. It feels like a new country, and I don’t think anyone really knows where we’re going with it.
And I think that that is what happens in the play, actually, that triggered by the death of the Queen… There’s a kabob seller in the film who says, “People come in here and they don’t know where they live anymore…”
Paul: This meat here, it’s not one thing. Different pieces, different slices collected around one cool piece of steel. But you take that away and it all falls apart. Maybe she is what held it all together.
Mike: And I think that’s how a lot of people felt after the Brexit vote is that the ground had shifted.
Jace: The News International phone hacking scandal provides a real springboard for the action here. One would assume that, given how members of the Royal Family were hacked and how Diana died, Charles might be in favor of the bill. Why is he so firmly against this within the confines of the play itself?
Mike: Yes, exactly. It was very much in the news when I was writing the play to begin with, but then I realized it was ideal because one would expect Charles to be in favor of curtailing press freedoms. He’s known for not being the royal journalists’ and certainly not the photographers’ biggest fan, and therefore, because he stands up for their freedom, it means he’s doing something selfless.
Mr. Evans: I would have thought of all the victims / You’d feel the strongest something must be done.
Charles: As a man, a father, husband, yes I do. / But that’s not who we are when sat with you / In here…
Mike: And hopefully, as an audience, we understand that he’s not acting out of self interest. He genuinely feels it’s the right thing to do. It’s a moral, principled position, so I think that really helps us to be on his side.
And I think he suspects that it would be in the politicians’ interest to kneecap the press and that that’s dangerous. Really, the press should be the people holding them all to account, and who’s going to stand up for the press? Maybe that’s exactly the sort of the thing that the monarch should do is stop the politicians getting away with it.
Also thematically, in the piece, Jess and Harry are perceived by the press- there’s a sense that they’re stopping that couple being together because they’re from two different worlds.
Harry: A picture made of Jessica that is / Quite intimate has made its way onto / The cover of the London paper and / There is attack toward her worse than I / Have seen, ‘gainst Kate, or me, or mum, or you, / and now she wants to leave me cos of this.
Mike: So that relationship between the Royal Family and the press, and being in the public eye, and the Royal Family using the press, as Kate and William do in the piece, to be their greatest power– that’s what Kate says, “The column inches and the photos are the greatest influence we have.” Which you realize is true but it’s something, perhaps, Charles doesn’t realize.
And you can see that with Kate and William is how clever they’ve been at reinventing the Royal Family, not through not signing laws or writing letters to politicians, but just by choosing where to do a photoshoot. And it’s very smart but it’s two very different ways of being a monarch.
Jace: Given 2017 and the role of fake news, how should we read the influence of the press here and the jockeying between the Head of Opposition, and the PM, and Charles as to what the press represents?
Mike: Well, it’s interesting that there’s a lot of people after the press at the moment: there are politicians after the press, there are people who are saying “fake news” and attacking people.
I actually think that they’re being attacked on two sides, which is that side, and then also the commercial side with the demise of the newspapers and all of that. Who’s paying for it? No one’s paying for journalism. So, the danger is, if no one’s paying for it and they’re being attacked they won’t exist and then all we’ll be left with is rumors.
In a way, I’m really pleased that Charles stands up for press freedom and stands up for journalists because I think, increasingly, someone’s going to have to. They’re a vital part of a democracy and, at the moment, I don’t see quite how they’re going to survive. I mean, they will, I’m sure they will, but it’s not clear who’s going to pay for it and what form it will take.
Jace: Yeah, it’s pretty scary.
Charles and Kate emerge as unlikely enemies in King Charles III. What do these two represent: both in terms of force but also the way they wear, or might wear, the crown?
Mike: They’re different generations. Charles believes in substance. He believes that things exist in three dimensions; they can be deep; he ponders things and then comes to a very deep decision, and that’s what being a king or a monarch should be about is wisdom drawn from time thinking, and reading, and research.
Kate, in the play anyway and in the film, comes from a business background and she understands that it’s all about being seen.
Kate: Our looks don’t make us cruel, our youth is not / An ignorance, and detail in the way we dress / Should not be thought as vanity, but as / Part of the substance only we provide.
Mike: And it’s interesting, a generational thing, in that her whole generation, which is my generation, doesn’t really believe that to be two dimensional means it’s meaningless. Actually, a photo can carry a huge amount of meaning. An image, what somewhere wears, what they seem to be can be as meaningful as what’s behind that.
In a way, those two philosophical positions- I don’t think many people are thinking about this when they’re watching it but I like to… It’s really fascinating. Perhaps it’s the 60s generation, it’s the baby boomer generation, who believed in deep things, versus a generation who grew up on video games and iPhones, who just swipe and swipe, and new thing, new thing, new thing, and new image. I’m not saying one is better than the other but I think they’re very different ways of seeing the world, and I think Kate and Charles do represent those two views, in a way.
Jace: And she’s presented as a Lady Macbeth type character almost, pulling strings behind the scenes in order to get William to the throne early and wear a crown of her own.
Kate: Yes this is what, enthroned, that I will do. / Not simply help my husband in his crown / But wear one of my own.
Jace: Is it simply ambition that compels her or something deeper?
Mike: Yeah, it’s interesting, the Lady Macbeth question, because it’s undoubtedly true that she does seem a little Lady M like, but I think some of that is just down to the fact that she’s a woman, actually. She’s ambitions a bit, but really, and she comes out and says this in the piece, she’s really just protecting the monarchy.
As she sees it, she’s doing her job. She’s protecting the family business. She doesn’t immediately step in and act. It’s only when it’s really getting to a crisis point that she forces the issue.
Mr. Evans: The schools have closed, doctors are stretched. / The bloodshed worsens every day we wait / And while we in the house attempt to calm / The King parks / A tank in Buckingham Palace grounds.
William: Prime Minister, in private, I, of course, / Wholeheartedly do give my full support. / But this is for the parliament to solve.
Kate: William, they can’t! Parliament is impotent. / The time has come to go and halt this mess.
Mr. Evans: Your Highness, you are the only way.
Mike: And I really admire her for that. I think, “Why should she just stand by and let people mess it all up?”
Jace: …Once there’s a tank outside Buckingham Palace.
Mike: Exactly. Somebody has to step up and do something because it’s all falling to pieces.
I think that what’s interesting is, because she’s a woman and she’s in a Shakespeare-type play, you think “Lady Macbeth.” If I’m honest, it’s no doubt that I’m slightly playing with that in the piece.
Mike: And it’s fun.
The moment when she comes out and does the soliloquy is almost to name that there with the audience. To go, “You think I’m Lady Macbeth, and I’m a bad person, and I’m ambitious. Actually, I’m just doing my job. And I’m intelligent, and I’m powerful, and I’m alright.”
And I think it’s a great bit in the film, as well, when she turns and says, “You’re watching me.”
Kate: You’re looking at me? Aren’t you? All the time.
Jace: She seems to be a reactionary feminist force within the play. Should we read her as an opportunist who is tired of being forced into her role as a pretty, plastic doll?
Mike: No. I think she’s smart enough to know that that’s what people might say. She’s so clever. She knew exactly what she was getting into, I think. And that’s what I wanted to put across. No one’s pulling the wool over her eyes. She’s not being manipulated. Don’t feel sorry for her; she wouldn’t want you to feel sorry for her. She wears very nice clothes. She knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s very good at her job, whether you like that job or not.
Jace: She’s a canny political operative.
Mike: I think so. I mean, yeah, I think that’s right. And also, I don’t think that’s a bad thing to be, actually. If you’re involved in that world, then why wouldn’t you be? I would be.
I mean, there’s fun to be had to see her as ambitious, but she’s no more ambitious than almost everybody else in the play.
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Jace: Diana’s ghost appears out of the ether. When did you decide that the late Princess of Whales would make an appearance and why include Diana as a ghost here?
Mike: I mean, it’s a great opportunity. In a way, you sort of go, “How could you tell the story without her appearing?” She literally hovers over it in every sense. And, it being Shakespeare, you’re allowed ghosts.
I think if I’d written this just as a play and gave it to someone, they’d probably go, “We like it, but maybe we’ll just lose the ghost. Why do you have a ghost in the middle of your play?”
Mike: But because it’s Shakespeare and he does it, then I’m allowed to do it.
Diana: An indecisive man and oft so sad / Will be the greatest King we ever had.
Mike: I love doing things which you think are maybe funny or a joke, and then turn out to be serious and have thematic, narrative implications, big ones, for the piece.
And I think that’s what she is. She’s a ghost, but she’s also a manifestation of the psychology of Charles and William in that moment.
Diana: Such pain my son, such hurt, but now be glad. / You’ll be the greatest king we ever had.
Mike: And, just in a simple way, if you lose your mother or you lose your wife, I would imagine it’s utterly devastating, and it it changes you as a person, and you never stop thinking about it. So, to not put something in it about that would be an omission, I think.
Jace: Now, Diana’s ghost prophecies that both Charles and William will be “the greatest King of all.” Why does she contradict herself, and is she still causing trouble, even from beyond the grave?
Mike: Well, she does seem to be causing trouble, doesn’t she? I think, because… Well, there are different answers, really. Yeah, you could see her as a real ghost who’s manipulating them and helping William and sabotaging Charles, or you could see it as a manifestation of psychology on both their parts, so it’s not a contradiction because they’re both thinking a similar thing. I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t have to (laughs).
Jace: (Laughs) You once referred to incredibly intelligent, very sophisticated people, “becoming deliberate peasants” when it comes to the royals. I witnessed that firsthand, as I was in London the day that Diana died. What do you make of British people’s connection to royalty and how that has shifted in the wake of Diana’s death, now 20 years ago?
Mike: I think, it was a surprise to everyone at the time, when she died, how much it meant to the British population, even then, in the middle of the 90s, when the Royal Family was seen as a joke. I think now, they’re not see as a joke at all. I think people are very open about their huge interest, and respect, and all of that. So, no. I think, if anything, we are more like peasants than we were then. And I think, when the Queen dies…
And by the way, that sounds like I’m being very disparaging and that I’m not one of those people. I’m exactly like that. I think if you grow up in Britain, you grow up with the Royal Family. They’re there at Christmas, they’re there at every event. They’re part of your national identity. They’re like the national flag, as the flag is to America.
Countries don’t have much to root them in a sense of identity and one thing that Britain has is the Royal Family. They’re a living constitution.
I’m not commenting on that when I’m saying that we’re peasants. I just think it’s interesting that you could get away with thinking that we’re all intelligent citizens until these big things happen, and suddenly, we’re all there with flags, and bowing, and curtsying, and groveling, and all those sorts of things.
And I’m not sure I’m of the mode where I’d want to get rid of it. I mean, I have big problems with it and… I don’t know, maybe I would. But then again, I love the idiosyncrasies that make up countries. I love the stupid stuff that happens when a country was made — Britain has got loads of those stupid things, America has got loads of those stupid things — but without them what is a country? It would just be very faceless.
Jace: No, you want the Royal Guard at Buckingham Palace, with their hats and…
Jace: You want that. And I’m wearing them on my socks, actually, I just realized.
Mike: Are you?
Mike: You’re wearing themed socks for this interview?
Jace: I am. I am.
Mike: I love them. I’m afraid I haven’t worn themed socks, in honor of you.
Mike: But next time, I’ll do that.
Jace: There’s a great moment when Harry tries to use a five pound note, and the kabob truck guy says that the money is out of date.
Paul: Out of date now innit?
Restaurateur: You know since she died world has gone mad, I swear. Every night, people have this look. Bit like you…
Jace: It captures the sense of upheaval that would really happen when Queen Elizabeth dies. Every note, every coin, reflects a bygone, faded age. Is that how you intended that moment to read?
Mike: Yeah, exactly. And the things that we’ve taken for granted suddenly are strange; they’re suddenly gone. I remember, when I was about eight, my uncle was collecting coins, and he gave me an old penny, which had the King’s head on it, and it was like… I just couldn’t imagine why it would have someone other than the Queen. And of course, I realized it was that old.
But it will be in all our lifetime’s experienced, I’m sure, that we will have that moment where, suddenly, all the money has to be changed, and it’s somebody else on there. And I think, it’s actually, interestingly, in small ways like that that we might find the biggest disruption to our sense of national identity. It’s going to be fascinating.
Jace: Harry falls in love with Jess, a commoner, art student, for whom he wants to revoke his royal privileges. Given her republican stance and the fact that she ends up in the papers in spite of, or because of, Charles’s stance, how should we read her character?
Mike: I think, in a simple way, she’s someone that falls in love. And in a very Shakespearian way, there’s a massive obstacle to that love.
And we understand that class and privilege can be just as big a obstacle to people who are in love now, as it could be in all the literary classics where that happens.
Jess: …So King can tell you who to love and what/ To feel. The King’s dictator of your heart.
Harry: My heart was made by King, if I betray / Allegiance then the little that I am is gone.
Jess: But if you loved me you’d fight this / Or if I have to go, you’d come with me.
Harry: I want to.
Mike: That story’s a romance, really. There was a great moment in rehearsals where Rupert Goold, the director, suddenly shouted, “I know what this story is!” And I said, “What?” And he said, “It’s “Superman Two.’” (Laughs) “That’s what it is. It’s the same as “Superman Two.’” And we realized that that was actually right. It’s a guy giving up his powers for the woman that he loves, and then, in the end, he can’t, and therefore he can’t have the woman.
It’s one of those stupid moments, but it was really useful. It’s a really clear story. And it’s very important, particularly in the film, that you have a world which is not a world of palaces and politicians, or even media. It’s a world that normal people live in and she can provide that perspective. It’s very important to remind people that we are talking about privilege as well as everything else.
Jace: Charles dissolves Parliament nearly unleashing a civil war in the process. I love how he says, “Without my voice and spirit I am dust. / This is not what I want, but what I must.” Is it that sense of deep morality that undoes him or is it obstinacy?
Mike: Well, he’s being obstinate about his morals.
I think he’s an old fashioned guy, and maybe I shouldn’t say that, but he’s a man who sticks to his morals and suffers the consequences, and that’s the story.
Those figures are often the subjects of great dramas because we really root for them. And I think that for Charles that’s the case. We would hate him to halfway through go, “Actually, yeah. You know what? It would be easier if I just signed it,” and then he did it. It would just be so disappointing. We’d be really sad about that.
He’s an unlikely hero for us, in all sorts of ways, but hopefully, by the end, it is a tragedy: just through standing up for what he believes in, he loses everything.
Jace: I mean, he is, ultimately, the most tragic hero. He’s not Richard III plotting to take this throne. He is undone by forces around him, despite his innate goodness. It made me like Charles a lot more than I thought I would.
Mike: Yeah, I think that’s right. And I think, one can question some of the ways in which he does things, like the tank…
Jace: The tank, yes. (Laughs)
Mike: …And all of that. But, on the other hand, he’s just trying to consolidate his position. You can understand why he does that.
Also, there is that feeling- hopefully there’s that feeling alongside understanding him of suspecting that all those years waiting have had their effect.
It’s a bit like, sometimes you get an Assistant Director, in theater, who has assisted a lot of directors, and then, finally, after years of doing that, they get their own production, and it’s not very good because they’re trying to do all the things they ever wanted to do but in one production. There’s a theater metaphor for this, I think.
Jace: (Laughs). Now, Charles interrupts William’s coronation, seizing the crown from the Archbishop. I mean, what does that moment signify for Charles?
Charles: God save you.
Mike: In that moment, and when he says, “God save you,” to William, I think he has come to realize that the entire operation is a curse, “Waiting for this, and then, what is it? What good can be achieved through it?” In fact, imagine if Charles had instead been working for Greenpeace, or even become a politician, he might have achieved more. I think he, in that moment, feels he has achieved nothing, and what he has giving to his son is a poison chalice.
So, when you see William and Kate crowned at the end in what should be a jubilant image, hopefully, you’re then thinking, “What’s going to come next? What have they taken on? What’s going to happen to the country? Has the country lost a moment to be progressive and found itself being regressive?” William wants to be a King like his Grandmother…
So, yeah. A bit of a tragic ending. But it’s…
Jace: A bit of a downer.
Mike: It’s a bit downer. But I think, on the other hand, what I hope works against that is certainly, for British people, a lot of people talk about, “Wouldn’t it be great if they passed over Charles, and William and Kate were crowned as young king and queen?” That’s not going to happen but it is this story you get to see that. You get to see that image at the end. And certainly in the theater, and actually in the film, I find it quite moving. Even despite everything, I find it quite moving to see that couple being crowned at that age, something we’re never going to see in real life. You actually think they could be a wonderful king and queen as young people.
Jace: So not the pretty, plastic picture with no meaning?
Mike: Well, that’s what Charles feels, yeah.
Jace: If you want to learn even more about what went into creating King Charles III, be sure to check out our conversation with the late great actor Tim Pigott-Smith, who played King Charles, and Charlotte Riley, who played Kate.
Tim Pigott-Smith: I was absolutely staggered by it. But I didn’t think any of us had a clue for a minute that it was going to work as well as it did.
Jace: You can find that episode as well as past episodes of MASTERPIECE Studio on our website, pbs.org/masterpiecepodcast.
If you have an iPhone, you can even download our episodes for free and listen to them without internet connection on the “Apple Podcasts” app– it’s the one with a purple icon. And if you have an Android phone, get the Stitcher app for easy offline listening.
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Rachel Aronoff. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Special thanks to Barrett Brountas and Susanne Simpson. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.
Sponsors for MASTERPIECE on PBS are Viking Cruises, Farmers Insurance, and The MASTERPIECE Trust.
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