The TheatreguideLondon Review
Hampstead Theatre Autumn 2012
We want historical plays to do two things – give us an easy history lesson and give human faces to the figures out of the textbooks, making them come alive. Howard Brenton probably doesn't tell you too much that's new if you were at all awake in school, but he is successful in imagining personalities for the people involved that help us guess at why history happened as it did.
The 55 days of the title are those leading up to the execution of Charles I in January 1649. Brenton begins two months earlier when Parliament actually voted not to put the King on trial, and Oliver Cromwell's army invaded Westminster to 'purge' the no-voters and force a recount, and then takes us through the machinations for the show trial whose verdict was preordained.
The one bit of news Brenton may have for some is that Cromwell's party was not monolithic, but a fragile coalition, and that even his inner circle included idealistic democrats, bloodthirsty anti-monarchists, religious zealots of various stripes and even some monarchist sympathisers.
Where Brenton is most successful in humanising the story is in bringing us convincingly into a world where people could speak sincerely of doing Heaven's work and of speaking to and for God.
While the Parliamentarians are not above legal chicanery and personal prejudices, they are all presented as trying to do what is right, and while Charles is closed-minded and egotistical, he is above all defending a divine right of kings in which he absolutely believes.
Beyond that, Douglas Hewnshall makes Cromwell more of a politician than a despot, using his charisma to keep his coalition together while letting others do the dirtiest work for him, and swinging between conscience-haunted inaction and passion-driven snap decisions.
Mark Gatiss makes it clear that Charles is the smartest man onstage – he repeatedly brings the trumped-up trial to the edge of collapse by skewering its claims to legality – and that his intransigence is the result of the absolute conviction that he is on God's side.
Just as no playwright writing of Elizabeth I and Mary of Scotland can resist inventing a scene between the two who never actually met, Brenton allows himself the indulgence of creating a prison cell meeting of Cromwell and Charles, in which Cromwell tries to convince the King to capitulate and save his life.
But it is not the strong and pivotal scene it wants to be, the real high point of the play being the first trial day, in which Charles courageously faces down his accusers.
Brenton, director Howard Davies and designer Ashley Martin-Davis have chosen to place almost all of the play in modern dress (though inconsistently so – one character works at a typewriter and filing cabinet rather than computer), with the big exception being Gatiss's King, who is in full seventeenth-century wig and costume.
One can guess at the point being reached for – that the issues of the play resonate today, that Cromwell and Co represented the future and Charles the past, that Charles was royalty and his foes faceless middle management types – but it actually plays more as a distracting gimmick than anything else, and we would probably have been better off with full period costume.
Elsewhere, director Davies moves a large cast (many of them extras needed for the trial scene and to do some efficient set-changing) around with smooth efficiency, and Gerald Kyd, Daniel Flynn and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor provide strong support as various members of the Parliamentary coalition.
Review - 55 Days - Hampstead Theatre 2012