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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Speaking Like Magpies
Trafalgar Studios       February 2006

Rounding out the RSC's season of political plays is this new drama by Frank McGuinness. And it's a bit of a mess.

Given that the season was inspired by the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, McGuinness put that event at the centre of his play, though he then chose to focus his attention on everything and everyone around it.

Guy Fawkes and Robert Catesby appear, but as secondary characters, while the play is more interested in King James, Queen Anne, Robert Cecil, Henry Garnet and Anne Vaux.

To get into their heads and hearts, McGuinness also brings onstage the devil himself, complete with horns and cloven hooves, to act as tempter to each in turn, getting them to confess their deepest fears and desires.

The device backfires in two ways. First, director Rupert Goold has encouraged Kevin Harvey to camp the role up as broadly as any panto villain, which makes what could be a chilling character merely increasingly annoying to have around.

And second, the insights he draws out of the characters - that is, McGuinness's conceptions of their personalities - are uniformly simplistic, melodramatic and theatrically uninteresting.

William Houston's King James is a bug-eyed madman paranoid about dying, Teresa Banham's Quuen Anne is a closet Catholic sexually frustrated because the King prefers the company of men, Fred Ridgeway's Father Garnet is a saintly martyr-in-waiting, and so on.

No character is given more than one note to play, and so none has anything to interest us.

Frank McGuinness has said in interviews that the RSC, having commissioned the play, required its delivery sooner than he would have wished. One can't be absolutely certain that another rewrite would have helped, but it surely couldn't have hurt.

It might have toned down some of McGuinness's self-conscious attempt at purple poetry, which is completely unsuccessful, so that any speech of more than one sentence quickly sinks into mind-numbingly leaden artiness.

In what play like increasingly desperate attempts to liven things up, either playwright or director (or both) bring in songs, masques, mystical visions, pyrotechnics, flying, a dance-and-percussion sequence that looks like it escaped from Stomp, and the ghost of Mary Queen of Scots mounting the corpse of Elizabeth I. None of it works.

Interval chat got around, curiously enough, to 'What's the worst play you ever saw'' This isn't it. It lacks the special energy of the true disaster. It is just plain dull.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Speaking Like Magpies - Trafalgar Studios 2006

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