What if Shakespeare's Lord and Lady Macbeth had been temporally transported into twenty-first century Britain? They would certainly be reincarnated into the insidious Francis Urquhart and his formidable spouse Elizabeth. In their new personae, 'MacUrquhart' would still be haunted by guilty visions but would shed any qualms about committing murder in the interests of power, and 'Lady MacUrquhart' would waste no more time sleepwalking but sustain her role as the actual but invisible control over the man with titular authority.
The "House of Cards Trilogy," which includes "To Play the King" and "Final Cut," not only portrays such a ghastly scenario, but also demonstrates the disastrous consequences for a post-modern Britain when such a pair first insinuates itself into a position of power and then seizes and maintains an unrelenting grip on that power, even if, in the final analysis, it has to provoke a bloody war to do so. Thanks to Andrew Davies' darkly comedic script, Ian Richardson's brilliant portrayal of Francis, and a splendid supporting cast, the viewer is locked in suspense and held in a state somewhere between laughing and cringing at the political shenanigans, too many of which resound with an uncomfortable ring of contemporary probability.
The humor derives from Richardson as Francis, who ruptures the invisible barrier between illusion and reality by taking the audience into his confidence. In "House of Cards" he does this with such wry wit that viewers are drawn easily into his thrall, so much so that despite their better natures and common sense, they find themselves liking and identifying with this charming unapologetic scoundrel. Somewhere in the middle of "To Play the King," however, they realize, to their increasing horror, that by sharing in his most intimate thoughts, they have actually become co-conspirators in the machinations of Urquhart, who in a literal blink of the eye transforms congeniality into the mesmerizing malevolence of a king cobra. By the time they have become absorbed in the plot of "Final Cut," they are inextricably tied to Urquhart's fate, as on a runaway train. Thus the scenario becomes metaphorical for the public's unfortunate propensity to be seduced by plausible but unscrupulous politicians who draw them into situations that they might not realize are unsupportable until it is too late. The repeated use in "To Play the King" of Urquhart's initials, F.U., illustrates this proposition.
The late Ian Richardson's ability to keep the audience enthralled in the destiny of this despicable rogue testifies to his incomparable subtlety as an actor, who will be sorely missed. The lynchpin of the tale, Richardson is amply supported by an ensemble cast, including Diane Fletcher as his horrific wife; Colin Jeavens as Tim Stamper, his `whip' who wields 'a bit of stick'; Nicholas Grace as Stamper's toadying successor, Geoffrey Booza-Pitt; and Nick Brimble as the sinister Corder. Among Urquhart's memorable victims are Michael Kitchen as the well-meaning king, Susanna Harker as the unstable Mattie Storrin, Kitty Aldrich as the altruistic Sarah, to name only a few. All characters in this cautionary tale are vulnerable to the enticements of power, even those who begin as honest idealists. When Corder informs the nobly motivated Tom Makepeace, who eventually succeeds Urquhart as leader of the party, that "we"--meaning Corder, Elizabeth, and the rest--are "right behind" him, one understands the story's message that all politicians, even those with the best of motives, are liable to being corrupted absolutely by the acquisition of absolute power.