There has, although we don’t know it yet, been a mix-up with timings—a rather critical mix-up.
Both Tim Pigott-Smith and I think we have an hour to speak to each other, and then Pigott-Smith will have another hour to prepare himself to get into costume and character for his role as Prince Charles in Mike Bartlett’s “future history play,” King Charles III.
But this particular evening’s performance starts at 7 p.m., not 8 p.m., and so soon I will be talking about ambition and love with the heir to the throne—kind of—in his underwear.
The Broadway play, showing at the Music Box Theatre, transferred from London’s West End, has been praised by critics, with The New York Times’ Ben Brantley hailing Pigott-Smith’s “fully fleshed performance that finds heroic dimensions in one man’s misguided bid for greatness.”
The play, which unfurls from the imagined death of the Queen, is both dramatic and very funny: written in blank verse, it has its own Shakespearean feel while being utterly modern.
And it elevates Charles—so often thought of as a bad husband to Diana; an impatient, ever-waiting heir to the throne because of the indomitable Queen; and an irritant with his Black Spider memos to government ministers—to something of a hero.
The play’s clever mechanics lead Charles to become a determined defender of the freedom of the press, even though the latter has been the constant thorn in his side—but this ‘King Charles III’ may never get to reign if his son William, goaded by a brilliantly imagined Lady Macbeth-styled Kate, have their way. Charles’s time seems to have come and gone, and so what relevance can he find, if any?
Pigott-Smith, a handsome and urbane 69 years old, sits in his dressing room at the Music Box Theatre, early evening Midtown insanity pulsating outside.
He is “still not quite right” after a horrendous sinus infection engulfed him a few weeks ago. “It was so bad I would get up in the morning and not know how I was going to get through the day—let alone the show.”
But soldier on he did, for Pigott-Smith—a dyed-in-the-wool theater actor, still best known for his bad-guy role in 1984 TV drama The Jewel in the Crown—is an old-school trouper. “I didn’t miss any performances. I don’t like to miss shows.”
But the period of his heaviest illness was “insane,” Pigott-Smith says. He thought he’d fall off the stage, “but on stage something happens—they call it ‘Dr. Floorboards’—where you feel OK, it’s only when you get into the wings you realize how ill you are.”
The play’s producers packed him off to a laryngologist “who shoved cameras down my throat, and gave me injections of vast amounts of meds—whatever they were, I don’t care. They got me through. But my voice still isn’t right, I can’t use it at full power.”
Pigott-Smith’s voice is its own work of art: very British, very mellifluous, an actor’s voice where register and timbre are everything. “You know, it also might be New York-itis,” he says of his ailment. “What a funny city it is.” Sometimes from his high-floor apartment he can see the smog below; the traffic around Midtown is a bad joke; and the tourists who stop dead in the middle of the sidewalk infuriate him.
“It used to be a more aware city,” says Pigott-Smith. “It was faster, more dangerous. Today New York is safer. When I was first here in 1974 it wasn’t a load of fun. Hell’s Kitchen really was ‘Hell’s kitchen.’ Today, New York still has beautiful and wonderful things in it, but the central area is disgusting. Times Square is disgusting. It’s just a shame because it's a mythic place—why on earth don’t they clear it up?” The desperate and crazy clog the streets.
London is the same, he says—hyper-wealth creating a city of buildings without “spiritual guidance, they’re just lumps of concrete to make money.”
Unsurprisingly, Pigott-Smith is no fan of David Cameron’s “hideous, appalling” Conservative government. “They’re wrecking the National Health Service. They don’t care. They’re liars, like the Republicans here. They seem to have no humanity or conscience.”
But neither is he an unalloyed fan of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. His election, thinks Pigott-Smith, could be a “disaster, but—like our play—it does show a man of principle can set the cat among the pigeons. I think [Tony] Blair and [George W.] Bush are war criminals. I don’t see any other way you define it. They invaded a country, and I think they knew there was no proper reason for doing it. Look at the fallout. They completely antagonized an entire generation of people ‘over there’ who just see us as the Devil.”
Pigott-Smith’s politicized passion matches Charles’s in the play. When he first heard about the play, he thought, “A play about the Royal Family, I can’t think of anything more boring.” But then he read it.
“Audiences can be a little bit mystified about what they’re going to see. Ten minutes in, you think, ‘This is well-written’—then you’ve got Harry, as Hal in Hamlet in Eastcheap with Falstaff. As soon as Charles says he wants to defend the freedom of the press, I thought, ‘Stone me, we’ve got a play here.’”
One audience member said they had never liked Charles so much until seeing the play. “I have a soft spot for Charles,” Pigott-Smith says. “I always have done. I think he’s had a strange life in the waiting room, or—as Mike writes in the play—‘a lingering for the throne.’ I feel quite sorry for him. If the Queen is the longest serving monarch ever, he is necessarily the longest serving heir-apparent. He’s waiting, waiting, and waiting. She could go on for another 15 years.”
The Queen may believe she is “by the Lord anointed,” says Pigott-Smith. He is not sure if Charles sees his future kingly role as divinely conferred, but he’s pretty sure that William and Kate are more secular.
The play evokes “the massive moment” of the Queen’s death, as well as the general decline of Britain, which Pigott-Smith dates squarely to the Prime Ministerial rule of union-busting, capitalism-embracing Margaret Thatcher.
“If I had a choice, and we were starting from scratch, I would create a republic,” says the actor. “But I don’t see a huge amount wrong with the hereditary principle. Our constitutional monarchy is a pretty amazing creation.”
Having grown up alongside Charles—Pigott-Smith is three years the Prince’s senior—he has always felt Charles wasn’t “properly loved” by the busy Queen, for whom the maintenance of the monarchy took precedence over his nurturing.
Charles, he thinks, is highly sensitive, clever, and caring, whom the political system should listen to. Only when rejected does Charles get “spiky,” says Pigott-Smith. “Some of his ideas are interesting, some are barmy. Take the good and ignore the bad. What a strange life. I do think he would be a good king, although it’s questionable now whether or not he’ll make it. Her mother died at 101. The basic truth is that Charles could be dead before the Queen. Or maybe there’ll be 15 tolerable years for him.”
While it’s unknown if Charles has snuck in to see his imagined future in stage, after one performance in which Pigott-Smith mistakenly wore his wedding ring instead of the signet ring that’s part of Charles’s costume, word from Charles’s camp came that he didn’t wear his wedding ring.
“It felt,” says Pigott-Smith, “like a way of them saying, not, ‘You’ve got this wrong,’ but ‘We’ve got an eye on what you’re doing, but we don’t really care.’”
Pigott-Smith’s isn’t a direct impersonation of Charles. “On day one, Rupert [Goold, the director] said that if we impersonate our characters, we don’t leave the audience room to move to see what they have in their heads. I take him completely seriously from the inside.”
But Pigott-Smith’s Charles still fiddles with his cuffs as real Charles does, and the actor also does a little bit of Charles’s strangulated voice as his comedic impersonators often have, “just enough to juice up” the play’s funnier moments.
Some of the language (and explanations of British constitutional monarchy) has been adapted for American audiences. Audiences here have gotten all of the play’s humor, says Pigott-Smith; indeed he prefers the “democratic” layout of the American theater, compared to the narrow, straight British shape, which is designed around the class and prominence-defining Royal box.
Someone said to Pigott-Smith that what the play conveys was that events could happen: “that it was less possible, and more plausible,” as he puts it. Even the vista of civil war doesn’t seem so outlandish, Pigott-Smith says, when one considers the “mass hysteria” that unfolded after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
When an onlooker called out, “We love you, Diana,” as her coffin was drawn past the crowds, says Pigott-Smith, “I thought, ‘This country’s a mess now. What’s happened to people?’ There’s no sense of dignity and occasion left, it’s just disgusting.” Since that moment, the English have become more like Americans, showing their emotions in public.
Suddenly, an announcement is piped into Pigott-Smith’s dressing room. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, it is Thursday night and it is half an hour, ladies and gentleman.”
Pigott-Smith looks horrified. “I’m way behind. I’ve got to start getting ready. We don’t do 8 o’clock tonight, it’s 7 tonight.”
I offer to leave, but the actor beckons me over to a bulb-fringed mirror to carry on talking as he applies his make-up. Next to his table is a tea towel of the queen, given to him by the British actor Simon Jones, who played Arthur Dent in the popular BBC radio and TV series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There is a bottle of champagne, lots of cards, and the Vanity Fair picture of the King Charles III cast, as shot in the London Eye.
“It isn’t a burden,” he smiles of the fame that The Jewel in the Crown bought him. A lady flew in to see the play because she was a fan of it, he says. “It’s the kind of the burden you want hanging around you. As an actor you’re grateful for any level of recognition. But I didn’t want to be a film actor. I didn’t have the face or desire. Look at Tony [Anthony] Hopkins or Ben Kingsley. How many really good films have they made in their lives? I think the best films Tony made—The Remains of The Day—were in England.”
Pigott-Smith was “peddled around” to agents and casting directors after the celebrity-garnering attention Jewel bought him, but the first success he had after that was the science-based drama, Life Story: The Race for the Double Helix (1987), “which wouldn’t have been made over here.”
“I was really uncomfortable with fame,” the actor says. “I mean, it’s lovely and flattering, and you enjoy all the razzmatazz and being flown around, but when people suddenly call you a star, you think ‘I’m not a star, I’m just playing a star role.’ I’m good in this play because it’s a good part, not because I’m a star.”
Aging, he says, quoting Bette Davis, “isn’t for sissies. I don’t like it very much. When I do two performances a day, I find I’m completely drained. My memory is quite good, except when I’m off stage.” He laughs.
Unlike the Charles on stage, Pigott-Smith does not dwell on his mortality. “There’s a really great line in Julius Ceasar: ‘It seems to me most strange that men should fear; Seeing that death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come.’
“Obviously, it’s the way you go that’s disturbing. It doesn’t terribly worry me. I don’t want to have a stroke or lose my mind and be a burden on other people.”
The signs are good: His parents lived well into their 90s. His co-star Margot Leicester told Pigott-Smith (and he agrees): “I think stoicism is underrated.”
Pigott-Smith is now in his underpants, and utterly unselfconsciously so. His entry on to the stage is only moments away. Prince Charles is in good shape, I can report.
What is left on his dream role roster, I ask. In 2011, Pigott-Smith played King Lear, in 2012 Prospero in The Tempest. Pigott-Smith wondered what he could possibly play “after these two real mountains, and this play comes along. That’s the beauty of this profession. You don't have to retire until it retires you.”
King Charles III may return to the West End, and if it does, and with a new company, Pigott-Smith would like to keep playing its title role. “It quite appeals to me. When you’re in a good play and a good production, you find that you’re in something that has a life beyond you. You think, ‘Oh my goodness, this play’s alive.’”
Pigott-Smith is writing his memoirs, and thinking about his entry into acting. “I never had to make a choice, I drifted towards it. The only thing my parents wanted was for me to go to university to have something ‘to fall back on,’ the fuck-all use that is. I don’t know if any degree has been of any use to anyone in that respect.”
He went to university, and then acting school, in Bristol in the west of England. His father was a journalist, and his mother would have been an actor “in a different life,” he thinks. The family moved to Stratford-upon-Avon at the time of the founding of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“My parents were fantastic. I was an only child, so I had a lot of love and too much attention. I don’t think I was spoilt. My mother was quite a disciplinarian, but I did have a lot of attention and quite a lot of pressure to do well at whatever I was doing.”
There have been moments—principally when he couldn’t get work—when acting hasn’t been fun. But back in the mid-’70s he could claim unemployment benefits, and continue paying for his and his wife’s very small mortgage. He and Pamela, also an actor, had married in 1972. They had a young baby—their son, Tom, who grew up to be a violinist—and were quite poor. “Things are much harder for people today,” says Pigott-Smith sadly. There is no safety net, he says, and a society should help people if and when they need that.
What’s the secret to their long marriage, I ask. “I don't know… Choose the right woman,” Pigott-Smith laughs, suddenly asking me to leave. He only has 10 minutes before he has to appear on stage. I leave him in Prince Charles’s dress shirt and underpants.
The next day we speak by phone. As Pamela was an actress too, she knows the actor’s life, and Pigott-Smith wonders if that isn’t the key to their marriage’s longevity (besides them both being compatible, and she “wonderful as a wife and mother”).
Someone who isn’t an actor, Pigott-Smith says, wouldn’t be so well-disposed to a partner whose work schedule was so unpredictable, or phoning so often to say, “Sorry, darling, I’m going to be late.”
Things did go “out of balance” when Pigott-Smith became very famous because of Jewel, but, he asks rhetorically, what should one do when one is offered that kind of opportunity.
As for those dream roles, Pigott-Smith does not hesitate. “I want to do a Western. I want to play an English dude in the 1890s, running a gambling saloon in the Midwest. I want to ride out of the corral, holding a bunch of cowboys at gunpoint.”
He pauses, “Give that last bit some prominence, please.”
Casting directors, over to you.