A weekend in London (I can’t help but sing that to the tune of ‘A weekend in the country’ but that’s just me….)
55 Days, Hampstead Theatre
This is one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a long time, I wish I could get to see it again because there’s a lot to take in. Of course it does combine a couple of my favourite things historical geekery and Mark Gatiss, but even without the latter it would have been wonderful (although his performance as Charles I is simply wonderful).
A new play by Howard Breton and directed by Howard Davies the play follows the 55 Days of the title that led to Charles I’s trial and execution. If you have a working knowledge of the period it does help as you can sit back and appreciate Breton’s innovative re-telling, however total novices to the period will find the play easy to follow and come out suitably enlightened.What actually comes over most strongly is Breton’s use of the past to illustrate the present. It’s a refreshingly honest look at the period in history, Breton’s approach shows the chaos surrounding Cromwell and the trying decisions involved. Although you get the sense he is firmly on Cromwell’s side you also see he is aware of the flaws. While the audience is shown the drive for the building of a new society and side with Cromwell in his need to build a new country, they are also shown the flaws in the execution of this plan (pardon the pun). Cromwell and his supporters take time to be galvanized their plans messy and ad hoc and of course that they can only achieve their aims by a Military Coup. The characters involved are many, and without prior knowledge it may be difficult to follow who is who, but again this doesn’t matter because in Breton’s re-telling they are potentially any man found in such a position from the hapless lawyer John Cooke who gets the job by virtue of being the only one not to flee London to the soldiers who out of loyalty to Cromwell become a part of the execution of a King, all these characters are people we recognise from our own society.
The approach Davies takes to realising Breton’s text also assists the effect of being both historical and present today. The company aside from Charles wear contemporary clothing-a uniform of grey suits and greatcoats. The direction is incredibly slick and makes use of the entire ensemble who make up Parliament and the army as well as moving the minimal props from scene to scene to create the multiple settings of the play seamlessly. The solid ensemble of actors work with Cromwell (Douglas Henshall) and Charles (Gatiss) to give an impression of these two central figures who have dragged so many others into events.
Henshall gives an astounding performance capturing Cromwell’s torment between his faith, his sense of duty to his country and it seems a desire to do right by the King as a man despite what he’s had done. There is an incredible control to Henshall’s performance, that stops his Cromwell from veering towards religious fanatic or unbelievably sentimental about his actions towards the King. He holds the audience much like the ensemble around him, who much like Cromwell’s men may have done seem to gravitate around him.
Gatiss performs Charles I with a quiet dignity that captures the sadness of his downfall, although we know the outcome there is a sense the audience is willing him to make a deal with Cromwell right to the last moment. Gatiss balanced this quiet dignity with the pomp and arrogance of a King. His self assured belief that God has decreed his place on the throne veers into pomp and pageantry in his public moments but is sincere and almost sad in private ones. The final (fictional) conversation between Charles and Cromwell gives both actors a chance to show what is truly a masterclass in performance.
There is much to take in during 55 Days and my only regret is I didn’t snap up a second ticket when it went on sale as the run is now sold out! Even if history geekery isn’t your thing, even if you think ‘I don’t much like that Gatiss fellow’ 55 Days will change your mind. Or in my case reinforce your affection for both!