Robert Powell is adamant that his interpretation of Prince Charles is not an impersonation…. then he breaks into the royal’s distinctive husky voice.
It is the first and last time he “does” the future king for me. His commanding role in Mike Bartlett’s multi award-winning King Charles III, which has just started a national tour, is a far more complex and affectionate character to be ruined by a caricature.
Powell counts the Prince of Wales as an acquaintance through club membership and his charity work with the Prince’s Trust so he’s keen not to offend.
But he found the challenge of the role too hard to resist when offered the chance to star in the touring production of the acclaimed show which had won plaudits for Tim Piggott Smith at The Almeida and in the West End.
The 71-year-old star keeps meaning to cut back on his stage work, in a nod towards taking life easier, but he’s appeared in a series hugely successful plays since leaving BBC TV’s Holby five years ago, mostly national tours, including the lead in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell and as Hercule Poirot in his first Agatha Christie.
The Manchester-born father-of-two is fearless when considering work. In a 50 year career he’s thrilled as Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps, will forever be remembered as Jesus of Nazareth, had an early role in Michael Caine’s The Italian Job, appeared in both the rock operas Tommy and Mahler, and made us laugh in Jasper Carrott’s The Detectives.
A major consideration is always whether he find’s the part interesting and fresh.
He told me: “I got a call from the producers of King Charles III. They sent me the script and that was it. It’s novelty that traps me every time. Having read it, it became virtually impossible to turn it down.
“All my friends had seen the original production but I hadn’t, thank goodness, so I’m coming to this fresh. I knew that it was good, which is an advantage when you’re coming into it. I knew that it would work.
“I have been offered eight plays in the last six to eight months and turned them all down because they were dull to me, they didn’t get the juices flowing”.
King Charles III has been labelled a “future history” play. It takes a punt at what life would be like if The Queen has died and Charles has become the nation’s monarch. Just how effectual would he be? Is his a voice in the wilderness or will people listen when he has firm views – and will he find himself at loggerheads with the government?
Powell’s role as King Charles is a major one requiring a lot of stage time with rhyming dialogue reminiscent of Shakespeare’s great speeches. Also appearing are other key royals – William, Harry, Catherine and Camilla.
“This is the hardest thing that I have ever done,” said the star. “It’s written in iambic pentameter but, in saying that, it’s also very accessible. People won’t find it difficult to follow.
“But a lot of the play I’m out there on my own and the concentration required is extraordinary, I can’t let my mind wander for a second.
“Two of my old friends, Laurence Olivier and Nigel Hawthorne both said to me that the day that they decided to give up the theatre was a day of liberation.
“It’s terrifying – and yet still I do it. I’ve done nothing but theatre since leaving Holby.
“I know Charles and he is an extraordinary nice man. I think that he was once misunderstood but now the public realise what a national treasure he is.
“Yes, I’m a monarchist, and proud of it. I give an affectionate portrayal of Charles. There’s a nod to his gestures and mannerisms. I’ll occasionally over-emphasis certain words as he does – but it’s not an impersonation, none of us do that.
“And the public seem to like it. We’ve been getting some excellent notices.”
September 28-October 3, Newcastle Theatre Royal October 5–10, Nottingham Theatre Royal October 12-17, Milton Keynes Theatre October 19-24, Cambridge Arts Theatre October 27-31, Canterbury Marlowe Theatre November 2-7, Malvern Festival Theatre November 9-14, Guildford Yvonne Arnaud November 16–21, Edinburgh Festival Theatre November 23–28, Bath Theatre Royal November 30-December 5, Chichester Festival Theatre December 7-12, Plymouth Theatre Royal.