Last September, the media blazed with news that Queen Elizabeth had surpassed her grandmother, Queen Victoria, as Britain's longest-reigning monarch. She's held the throne for 63-plus years.
Little noted was the twin fact that the milestone meant that Elizabeth's son, Charles, now ranks as the longest-serving heir apparent.
"He's waited 66 years to be King," said Tim Pigott-Smith, mentioning the Prince's age. "It's a bizarre thought."
Pigott-Smith has had plenty of time to consider such matters. He is currently playing Charles in Mike Bartlett's new play King Charles III, which imagines what the royal's reign might be like should he ever don the crown. The show was a hit when it premiered at the Almeida Theatre in London in 2014 and transferred to the West End. It is currently at Broadway's Music Box Theatre. Pigott-Smith was worried when Bartlett first handed him the play, which is written in blank verse.
"I was concerned it was going to be a standard bit of pastiche," continued Pigott-Smith, "that it would poke fun at the Royal Family and the play would last about ten minutes, really. Then it would be dead in water. But it is exactly ten minutes into the play that you read something and think, 'Oh, my goodness. This is a really serious piece of work.'"
The play follows Charles during an early crisis in his reign, when he refuses to grant royal assent to a bill that he feels is too severe in restricting the freedom of the press. The conflict eventually pits him against his own son and heir, William.
"What's so brilliant about it is it seems completely plausible," said Pigott-Smith. "Of course, we don't know these people. We have a series of notions of what they're like. The way Mike's built the play, it ticks all those boxes. You just go, 'Oh, yes, you know Charles might just be like this.' We know he's a man of some care. He wants to be involved in the monarchy. We suspect that he's quite stubborn. We know he spends a lot of time writing letters and reading and studying."
The actor didn't feel he needed to study up on Charles much. "I didn't have to," he said, "because he's my contemporary. All my life, he's been Prince Charles, so I've watched him every step of the way."
None of the Royal Family has attended the play, to Pigott-Smith's knowledge. But they've sent emissaries. He knows this because Buckingham Palace sent a note saying Charles wouldn't wear his wedding ring. (Smith had left his ring on by mistake during one performance.) The missive told Pigott-Smith two things about the Royals' attitude toward the play: "A. — Don't think we're not watching. And B. — We're not going to make a fuss about it."