16 December 2012

55 Days @ Hampstead Theatre

Mark Gatiss as Charles I in Howard Brenton's 55 Days.

As a League of Gentlemen fan I was particularly looking forward to seeing Mark Gatiss as Charles I in Howard Brenton's 55 Days at the Hampstead Theatre, and I managed to catch it just before the end of its sell-out run ...

Beginning in late-1648 the play followed the political machinations leading up to the King's execution in January 1649. The soul-searching of each of the protagonists (Ireton, perhaps, aside) as they move towards what at the beginning appears unthinkable was skilfully done, with the script largely steering clear of histrionics (at one point Douglas Henshall as Cromwell thunders "We are not just trying a tyrant, we are inventing a country ...", though thankfully this kind of bluster was kept to a minimum).

The traverse stage split the audience in two, making us participants in the legal drama by seating us either side of the performers. The space itself seemed to shrink as we found ourselves either side of Westminster Hall, feet from the defiant King. In the scenes bookending the trial Charles' aloofness and physical separation from his subjects was emphasised by the decision to dress him in period costume while the rest of the cast sported 1940s fatigues. Under examination, however, it served as a sumptuous armour in the face of the charges put to him. His sardonic, Morningside burr swelled to dominate the room as he proved himself a far more skilful lawyer than Cromwell, Ireton and the rest put together.

Henshall first appeared as a haughty but unremarkable Cromwell, and early on it was difficult to see how he would be treated as an inspirational figure. Even by the end of the play, when he becomes the dominant power on Parliament's side, he remained essentially unknowable. The change was as relentless as it was imperceptible, and a testament to the controlled intensity of Henshall's performance.

Simon Kunz played a troubled, torn Fairfax - his wife a sounding board for his unease - while Gerald Kyd's John Lilburne ('Freeborn John') was a passionate voice of the people.

A feature of the play that some of the other reviews overlooked were the periods of comedy. Strangely, in this dangerous and unprecedented time, they often elicited flickers of clarity, not only to the audience but to the characters themselves. Exchanges between the King and his jailor and between Fairfax and Cromwell often writ large the absurdity of many of the play's predicaments, and Kunz's furrowed, raised brow was employed particularly effectively in laying bare Cromwell's hypocrisy. The scene where the regicides signed the execution warrant before flicking ink at one another in fits of laughter (though meant to have really happened), may have had the same purpose, though I thought this injected a jarring note of slapstick.

Only once or twice did we glimpse Charles' more tender or vulnerable side. After drinking while imprisoned he wakes from a slumber calling for "Henrietta", and I wondered whether the final meeting with his children Elizabeth and Henry (for which accounts survive) might be included. It wasn't, and I thought the end scene of his head on the block would have been more powerfully realised off-stage.

That said, this was a highly impressive example of how history should be explored through drama, with Gatiss and Henshall inspired choices as the protagonists. I hope we see 55 Days on again elsewhere, as in a play full of ambiguities it would be fascinating to see how other actors approach their roles.

Guardian review
Independent review
Time Out review

Production pages on the Hampstead Theatre website

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