“You are a tyrant, a traitor and a murderer, a public and implacable enemy of the Commonwealth of England"
sees playwright Howard Brenton return to the history books, after the
sheer brilliance that was Anne Boleyn
, in this new play for the Hampstead
Theatre. The 55 days of the title refer to the period between the enforced creation
of the Rump Parliament, the men determined to try King Charles I for high
treason, and the subsequent execution of the monarch after Oliver Cromwell
failed to reach a compromise with him. It’s a densely packed historical drama, perhaps
a greater intellectual than emotional pleasure, but intriguing all the same.
Mark Gatiss takes on the role of Charles I with a wonderfully arch arrogance,
utterly convinced of his divine right to rule and the inability of any higher authority
to challenge his own, and his louche physical language belies a sharper
intelligence that threatens to undo the work of Parliament to build an
unprecedented, solid legal case against their king. And that Parliament is led
by Douglas Henshall’s puritanical and precise Cromwell, a powerfully pugnacious
presence who, though claiming to be governed by pure notions of
free-nation-building, is not above the politicking necessary in order to ensure
the smooth passing of his will.
Howard Davies’ production plays up the notion of epochal change by keeping only
Charles in period dress and putting everyone else in modern(ish) dress,
hammering home the passing of the idea of absolute monarchy and clearly placing
parliamentary democracy as the way forward. But where Brenton exuded a
playfulness in Anne Boleyn which kept historical detail from weighing down
proceedings, here he reverts to a more traditional story-telling style which
makes the first half a little over-populated and heavy-going (that said, it
clearly didn’t help that this came the evening after I’d stayed up til 4.15am
waiting for Ohio to declare!).
It is then perhaps not so surprising that the play’s finest moment comes in its
one purely fictional scene of a meeting between Charles and Cromwell which sparks
with fury and feeling. But the density is always persuasive though as the complexity
of the protagonists’ motivations are explored and their doubts about being at
the vanguard of such world-changing events exposed. I loved Gerald Kyd's Lilbourne, Simon Kunz’s Fairfax is
excellently conflicted, backed by a powerful if under-used Abigail Cruttenden as
his wife, and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s John Cooke, who quickly rises to Solicitor
General , makes his ambition quietly appealing.
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Playtext cost: £5 (plus a programme at £3 - I don't know why but it bugs me that both are available)
Booking until 24th November
Labels: Abigail Cruttenden, Daniel Flynn, Douglas Henshall, Gerald Kyd, Gerard Monaco, Howard Brenton, James Wallace, John Mackay, Laura Rogers, Mark Gatiss, Matthew Flynn, Richard Henders, Simon Kunz, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor