Saturday, 27 October 2012

55 Days - review

Written by: Stephen St Clement

Hampstead Theatre, London

Howard Brenton’s new play charting the 55 days leading up to the execution of King Charles I is a slow-burning drama that more than makes up for in intensity what it occasionally lacks in dynamism. England is undergoing seismic change, where the absolute power of the monarchy is about to be challenged like never before. As Douglas Henshall’s Oliver Cromwell explains prophetically: “We are not just trying a tyrant, we are inventing a country.”

Though there are several notably strong performances within the ensemble, it is the two principal figures who command the audience’s focus throughout. Mark Gatiss’ Charles is proud yet witty, brash yet charming; though beset on all sides by those demanding his submission, and indeed his life, his indomitable presence overshadows all until the last. Gatiss displays great comic timing throughout, while the Anglicised Scottish accent he adopts gives Charles’ regal voice an unusual and memorable quality.

Opposite him, Henshall presents Cromwell as an extremely passionate and driven man, showing masterful control as his motivations are slowly revealed to be much more than zealous righteousness: his rage and frustration against the king are matched by an odd combination of jealousy, curiosity, and even admiration, making for an enthralling and revealing scene when the two finally meet on stage.
Brenton’s text derives its strength from a combination of dramatic license and historical authenticity; while the meeting between Charles and Cromwell is fictional, much of the former’s dialogue during his trial is lifted from the actual court transcripts. Several memorably surreal moments where it appears that a prop has broken by accident or that the actors have corpse are in fact drawn directly from historical record, creating an air of uncertainty that pervades between the audience and the onstage characters alike.

This idea of the end of an era provides the central theme in Ashley Martin-Davis’ design. Charles, in period dress as if animated from a portrait, is a relic of England’s feudal past, whilst Cromwell and his cohorts are striving for modernity, their dull, dark suits placing them somewhat in our recent past, as reflected by the staging. Laid out in traverse, the versatile Hampstead Theatre stage takes on the essence of Cold War era dilapidation: grey swinging doors, typewriters, overflowing filing cabinets, and dank floors with steam rising from a grate. The idea that the monarchy is holding back the tide of progress is a prominent one, and Charles’ damning witticisms about the redundancy of a constitutional monarchy appears to ask a rather poignant question as to the purpose of our monarchy today.

Howard Davies’ direction provides a tense and engaging atmosphere throughout, punctuated by several hugely entertaining scenic moments. There is a lack of pace in Act 1, while the end of Act 2 feels rather abrupt and in need of an epilogue, but overall the play is a triumphantly absorbing exploration of a pivotal, and still very significant moment in English history. 

This production runs until 24 November. 

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