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Robert Powell, Ozploitation star and one-time Jesus of Nazareth, is King Charles III on stage this week
Written by
Nick Dent

Actor Robert Powell is attending a garden party with Prince Charles shortly after playing him on stage in Sydney in the incendiary King Charles III. So, that won’t be awkward at all  

Like many an actor Robert Powell enjoys doing the odd celebrity impression as a party piece. He can tell you the trick to doing Prince Charles. “He over-stresses certain words and syllables that don’t need stressing. In conversehhtion, he’ll say ‘well I rehlly don’t understand…’”

People who go see Powell in the play King Charles III in Sydney in April, however, should not expect a straight-up imitation. “Because you’d have the audience judging the impression, rather than getting involved in the play. Still, every now and then I throw in a mannerism or vocal tic and the audience is tickled. I have to remind them – because I don’t look like Charles.”

And yet there are things the two men do have in common. Like the 67-year-old Prince of Wales, Powell (four years his senior) has spent his life in the public eye, clocking up 50 years as a star of stage and screen. Both are members of the same London gentlemen’s club (White’s). Powell is a longtime ambassador of the Prince’s Trust, Charles’s charity helping young people find employment. And yes, the actor and the heir apparent are acquainted.

“In fact in May, when I get back to England from Oz, we’ve got a [Prince’s Trust] garden party at Buckingham Palace. It will be the first time I’ve met him since I’ve played him,” says Powell, laughing over the phone from his London home. “It will be a curious little confrontation.”
Mike Bartlett’s “future history” play King Charles III is the rare show that deserves the descriptor ‘tour de force’. Written in the style of a Shakespearean history play in iambic pentameter, it imagines the death of Queen Elizabeth and the ascension of Charles to power, whereupon he refuses to sign off on a law brought to him by the prime minister. While Prince Harry is embroiled in his own scandal involving a new girlfriend, Charles presides over a constitutional crisis.

Bartlett invokes the public perception of Charles’s contrary nature to devastating dramatic effect. “It’s based in a very solid reality,” Powell says. “You think: good grief, could this happen? Charles [in reality] is a very, very, very conscientious man. Everything he does is driven by trying to get it right. [In the play] he decides to take a stand and use the constitutional right that no British monarch has used in 300 years, one thing leads to another, and you have a full Shakespearean tragedy.”

Premiering at the Almeida Theatre under the direction of Rupert Goold with Tim Pigott-Smith in the lead, Charles went on to score five-star reviews and the 2015 Olivier Award for Best New Play. Powell took over the lead for the UK touring production, which comes to Sydney as part of the Sydney Theatre Company's 2016 season. Powell says he didn’t even have to finish reading the script to know it was a part he wanted. “It’s extraordinary; a mini-masterpiece... The audience response is the thing that staggers me most of all. The audiences go ecstatic at the end.”

"Audiences go ecstatic at the end”

Powell, no stranger to iconic parts, shot to international fame playing the title role in Franco Zeffirelli’s all-star 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. The story goes that he went along to audition for Judas but looked uncannily Christlike once kitted out with a floppy wig. The series is still broadcast in many countries and Powell has a good argument for being the best-ever screen Messiah, his mellifluous voice and blue eyes deployed to hypnotic effect (helped by the fact that in six hours of television, he never once blinks).

His first visits to Australia were to promote Jesus. His most recent, in 2001, was joining his yachtswoman wife Babs on the cross-Tasman leg of the BT Global Challenge. He also starred in two 1980s Ozploitation movies for producer Antony I Ginnane. Simon Wincer’s Harlequin (1980) cast him as a Rasputin-like mystic with magical powers who infiltrates the confidence of an Australian senator. The Survivor (1981), directed by his Harlequin co-star, David Hemmings, had him as the pilot of a passenger plane who miraculously survives its destruction. He recalls having had a “lovely time” on set in Australia, with a caveat: “I did get the sense the Australian actors didn’t really want the poms coming over to take their jobs.”

A Hollywood career eluded Powell. “At the time, English actors were only required to play villains and gays – parts the American actors didn’t want. Obviously that’s all changed now. I did a couple of American films but I had trouble with Los Angeles. I don’t like it at all.”

Instead he worked in European films – including as the dashing Richard Hannay in a remake of The Thirty-Nine Steps, in which he memorably dangles from the big hand of Big Ben. Then followed an eclectic career in TV: a Hannay spin-off series; police sitcom The Detectives with Jasper Carrott; and six years as nurse Mark Williams on medical drama Holby City. He has additionally lent his reassuring tones to several World War II documentaries (“I probably know as much about the war as any actor because I’ve said it so many times”).

It’s often remarked upon that Lancashire-born Powell attended Manchester Grammar School in the 1950s alongside Ben Kingsley – Jesus and Gandhi sharing a classroom. Kingsley became Sir Ben in 2002, but we’re guessing, post-Charles, thata knighthood is now out of the question for Powell?

“I think a knighthood has always been out of the question for me,” he guffaws. “I’ve ducked and weaved throughout my career and never worked very hard at establishing that sort of” – he searches for and finds the right phrase – “imperial credential.”

King Charles III runs Mar 31-Apr 30.

King Charles III: dramatis personae

Charles Robert Powell
“…now I’ll rise to how things have to be
The Queen is dead, long live the King. That’s me.”

Camilla Penelope Beaumont
“I stupidly had thought that once you’re King
Perhaps it would reduce the angst you feel.”

Ben Righton
“You’re right of course, my father’s waited for
Too many years to call the crown his own.”

Richard Glaves
“…I am doomed forever just to chase your wake
A ginger joke, bereft of value.”

Jennifer Bryden
“We know the world. Our column inches
Are the great influence that we possess.”     

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