‘We are not just trying a tyrant, we are inventing a country. We are in an unknown region, floating on nothing, trying to think thoughts never thought before…’
I had the most wonderful time at the theatre on Friday. If you haven’t been to the newly refurbished Hampstead Theatre then go. Not only is it a gloriously intimate space, but it was designed by someone with a passion for sight-lines, giving the back row of the stalls where your truly was perched raised seats, which ensured a perfect line of vision to the stage, unbroken even by the gargantuan woman in front of me, hair piled atop her head.
The quote at the head of this is a particularly stirring line spoken by Oliver Cromwell in Howard Davies’ production of Howard Brenton’s muscular new play 55 Days at the Hampstead Theatre. The play explores the 55 days which elapsed between the formation of the Rump Parliament and the execution of Charles I in 1648. It is a play which educates, enthrals and moves in equal measure.
It is also a work which goes some way to rehabilitating Cromwell – an interesting move for Brenton, known for his atheism and socialist views. Certainly, the play isn’t shy about its biases: Cromwell, ‘God’s Englishman’, is superbly played by Douglas Henshall as a great leader of men : sometimes privately doubtful, always publicly irresistible.
He is hailed throughout as the bringer of democracy and peace. Private self-doubt and repeated prayers are amongst the only nods to Cromwell’s other interpretations: indeed there are moments where his glory is softened by the grim necessity of his actions. Amongst the most unsettling scenes in the play is the signing of the execution warrant of Charles I. The assembled regicides descend into hysterics, flicking one another with ink from the pen: suddenly, they are not doing God’s work, but are simply lost, tired men making decisions they feel unqualified for. It is truly chilling.
Cromwell’s rhetoric shakes the theatre alongside the ranting and roaring of his associates, for this is a play of angry men. The generals pace fanatically through the corridors of power, all scenes charged with urgency and a sense of inexorable progression.
Throughout, the military force and devastation of the Civil War provides stark relief for the complex ideas of Levellers, Puritans, Royalists and Democrats which are batted back and forth across the stage in all their rhetorical glory.
Costume is fascinating in this production. Almost everyone is in ‘vaguely modern dress’, a hodgepodge of greatcoats, fatigues and modern suits. Charles I remains isolated in outdated finery, silk pantaloons, a velvet cape, acres of lace throughout, gesticulating outlandishly with his cane as he rails against the rebels who are dressed for war, boots, rifles, caps low on their heads.
Mark Gatiss, who gives Charles an irresistible Scottish burr, is captivating. His peacock King is safely encased in the delusion of his own divinity until the final scenes, where a repressed stammer bubbles through his imperious lines, his courage finally shaken. Brenton borrowed lines from the court proceedings at the King’s trial, giving the scenes an additional eloquence. There is something delicious about Gatiss’ portrayal of the King’s demise, and the audience revels in it until the moments where his fear shows through, unsettling our sympathies, giving us a glimpse of the rebels as cruel, pompous men, unfit to adjudicate on the crimes of a tyrannical king.
The play is not without its weaknesses: there is an excess of staging, every scene-change necessitating an army of stage-hands. The pace never falters, but perhaps it should – even in the scenes where Charles sits alone in prison there is briskness, and the play could do with some softer moments. However, it is as vivid an engaging a rendering of this fascinating period as you could wish to see – a triumph which brings history to life. Not to mention, it has one of the most moving execution scenes you’ll see this year. Fantastic.