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It has been described as “Shakespearean”, but what are the most obvious parallels between Shakespeare’s History Cycle and Mike Bartlett’s play King Charles III?
I always get nervous about stressing that. I have a worry that people are put off the moment you say the word “Shakespeare” or mention blank verse, but audiences are a bit like Tigger in Winnie the Pooh – they don’t know what they like until they taste it. Having said that, there are elements of Hamlet at the beginning of the play, when you have a prince who is about to be king and who doesn’t really relish the idea. He’s quite nervous about it and a bit tentative, because he’s waited all his life. Then, throughout the play you have elements of Macbeth. I can’t say too much as I don’t want to give the plot away, but there is one quite famous Royal character who has a touch of the Lady Macbeth about her. And because it’s a play about fathers and sons and betrayal, when his children turn their backs on him at the end you have King Lear. In many ways, it’s a very poignant play.
So in the play, does Charles come across as ruthless, or bold, or foolish?
He is who he is. I know Charles – not terribly well, but our paths have crossed on more than one occasion and we’ve had conversations. He is an extraordinary man. He’s a man who is built by his conscience and being true to himself is what governs his life. This is his problem in the play, because he decides to take a particular action, with a particular law that he is supposed to sign for the government, and he declines to sign it. He asks the government to have another think. The government, being stubborn, refuses to do so, which leads to a constitutional crisis. He’s not ruthless at all. He’s a man who is swept away by events, but is driven by his conscience. And he’s certainly not a villain.
Who are his antagonists in the play? Who are his greatest threats?
First of all it’s the politicos. There’s a Prime Minister who is very stubborn, and there’s a duplicitous leader of the opposition who pretends to be on Charles’s side and then betrays him. The bill that Charles declines to pass is the very one you think he would be happy with because it’s a bill to restrict the freedom of the press. Although they do many outrageous things, there has been an outcry in the UK about trying to restrict the freedom of the press. But the moment you do that it means the government has nobody to hold it to account. We have a very low corruption rate in the UK because the press hold us to account. Charles sees this law that the government is trying to pass as a terrible avenue to go down so he refuses to sign it and then finds himself struggling alone with this. He thinks he has the backing of his children, but eventually that proves not to be the case.
Have you been called upon to embrace any Charles mannerisms, or do the voice?
Whenever an actor impersonates a living person the audience gets more involved in judging the impersonation than they do with the character. So I don’t impersonate Charles. But having said that, I wear his signet ring, and I play with it under stress. So there are certain of his mannerisms and little tics that I adopt. But that’s just to remind the audience that I am playing him even though I don’t look like him.
I’ve not spoken to you before, but I have to admit that you do sound a bit like him...
[Laughs] Well I can. [Sounding increasingly like Prince Charles] When he’s speaking, when he gets slightly over-excited, Charles has a tendency to stress certain words, which don’t really need stressing. So every now and again I will stress something. It just makes the audience think, “Oh, yeah, it is Charles!”
Do you know if any of the Royal Family have ever seen the play?
Oh God [laughs]. I should think it’s incredibly unlikely. It wouldn’t be possible, no matter what their disguise. If Charles or Camilla were in the audience, I think everyone would look at them instead of watching the stage.
If Prince Charles were to see the play, how do you think he’d find it?
I think it’s a very warm and generous play about him. But Charles would probably see weaknesses that he thinks he probably doesn’t have, and that’s all he would see. I don’t think he would see the good things. No, I don’t know whether he’d like it or not.
You’ve had an incredibly diverse, long and fruitful career, how did you get started?
I was reading a Law degree in Manchester, but I was also doing a huge amount of drama as an amateur and as a student. While I was doing a play at university, the head of the drama department came to see it and invited me to switch courses and do a drama degree with him. So I said yes. I didn’t know at the time, but I wasn’t qualified to do drama because I didn’t have certain English A-levels and O-levels – I had Latin, Greek and Ancient History. I was a Platonist. In the end I wound up with nothing and needed to get a job. One day I wandered into the drama department and my lecturer suggested I write to this particular little company. I got a job and I stayed there and that was it. I became an actor.
You’ve played roles that people might consider pretty career defining – Jesus of Nazareth, which was huge, and roles like Mahler in the Ken Russell film. How have you managed to have such a diverse career?
It’s largely because I work to entertain myself. I sometimes make a choice just for the novelty. And sometimes I have made very bad choices – I’ll freely admit that. When I was a lot younger, if somebody asked me to go off and do Ibsen in a small town in Northern England, or go off to Venezuela to do a silly thriller, I’d go off to Venezuela – just because it was more fun. So certain career choices were not great, but having said that I’ve managed to spread myself around and do lots of different things. I very much enjoy comedy as well. I think that is my métier.
Is there anything still on your bucket list?
[Laughs] Well, I played King Lear when I was 18 at school, so I don’t really want to do that again. I’ve always rather fancied Prospero in The Tempest. I like Prospero because it’s a wonderfully mental part. I’ve always wanted to do Uncle Vanya as well.
You’ve played Jesus, Hamlet and Mahler. Which of those larger-than-life characters is closest to King Charles III in this play?
[Laughs] Oh gosh! Hamlet, probably. Hamlet, prevaricating. An intellectual who is never quite sure of himself, who’s lacking a certain confidence. I think Hamlet would be the closest. But I can’t wait to put this in front of an Australian audience to see what they think. I thought that at the end of the play audiences would be behind William and Catherine, but it’s exactly the opposite! The audience are with Charles at the end, almost to a man.
Robert Powell stars in King Charles III for Sydney Theatre Company at the Roslyn Packer Theatre from March 31-April 30