The play charts the political upheaval of the mid-17th century. In these dangerous and dramatic times, in a country exhausted by Civil War, the great men of the day were trying to think the unthinkable – to create a country without a king. With Charles I refusing to compromise, Oliver Cromwell (Douglas Henshall) struggled to invent a political future for his country as he presided over the death of medieval England and the birth of the modern state.
Howard Brenton's gutsy new play, staged with consummate skill, flair and persuasion by Howard Davies, reminds us that its origins were…deep-rooted and idealistic. A forgotten area of revolutionary British history is fascinatingly unlocked. God’s Englishman, Oliver Cromwell (a mightily transfixing, but also troubled, Douglas Henshall), stands firm in his vision of liberty for all under a constitutional monarch, while… Charles I (a brilliantly cast, effete and scathingly superior Mark Gatiss), pours scorn on the kangaroo court and its sober-suited executives. There are more chairs and scene changes than in a Trevor Nunn production, but the speed and flow of the stage - which erupts with soldiers, then plotters and politicians of all types - suggests a nation on the move, hurtling towards decisions about itself, and ending with the king’s speech on the Whitehall block in January 1649. The re-birth of Howard Brenton as a substantial historical dramatist… is one of the great theatre stories of our time... The harum-scarum nature of change is brilliantly caught in the performances of Daniel Flynn as the army general, Henry Ireton, Simon Kunz as a thoughtful, wavering Fairfax and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as the hilariously timid prosecuting lawyer, John Cooke. Poetic lighting of Rick Fisher and the plaintive, anthemic music of Dominic Muldowney, boosted with great sound design by Paul Groothuis… A terrific and riveting evening.
Sherlock writer, actor and League of Gentlemen comic Mark Gatiss is one of the most talented men in showbiz. Which is one reason why there were more stars watching him make his poodle-wigged debut as King Charles I than there were onstage in Howard Davies' gripping, low-key production of Howard Brenton's new history play. Brenton, theatre's answer to Hilary Mantel, seems to be on a mission to carry on where Shakespeare left off - with more politics and less poetry. 55 Days is a punchy sequel to Brenton's Globe hit Anne Boleyn and it proves, yet again, his genius for turning the history of ideas into powerful drama. He is too much on the rebels' side, though: Douglas Henshall's excellent Oliver Cromwell has charisma and a conscience, as well as history on his side - visibly so, as the director dresses everyone except the king as modern soldiers or politicos. What you don't get from Gatiss - or Brenton's script - is real tragic insight into this intransigent hypocrite, who wasted his own country and the lives of his subjects for seven long years but then died on the block with eloquence and courage.
The idea of Mark Gatiss as King Charles the First is certainly seductive. And the magnetic star of Sherlock and The League of Gentlemen, here with flowing locks and elaborate lace collar, doesn’t disappoint. Alongside him, as Oliver Cromwell, Douglas Henshall is all steely charisma. The strongest scene in Howard Brenton’s new history play is a purely fictional one in which the two leads are alone: the tension between the unpopular monarch and his ambitious antagonist is palpable. The rest of the time this confident and idea-packed piece is watchable without being highly charged... Brenton captures the age’s religious and political turbulence in a script that strikes a balance between complexity and narrative clarity. This is a play about the human cost of attempting to change the world. It could have been a dour history lesson. Instead it engages with the present, raising some pungent questions about the kind of democracy we have in Britain today. But there’s still a good deal of slow-moving exposition, and Howard Davies’ intelligent production is a rather austere experience, especially in its dense first half.
Howard Brenton is turning into the history man. But I have no complaint about that, since he has chosen the best models. Schiller has clearly influenced this richly stimulating play about the last days of Charles I, in that we get lots of politics plus a totally fictitious meeting between the king and Cromwell. And, like Brecht, Brenton also uses the past as a means of examining the present. The beauty of Brenton's play is that, as with so many of Brecht's, there is a conflict between theory and action. We are, I suspect, meant to sympathise with Cromwell as a man of religious conviction torn between the need to execute the king and the desire to conciliate with him; and Douglas Henshall brings out to perfection the character's smouldering internal divisions. In reality, however, Cromwell strikes me as a thundering hypocrite who claims to be an instrument of God's will, while craftily packing the commissioners who will pass sentence on the king with yes-men. Charles I, in contrast, is... consistent in his belief that he is divinely appointed; and Mark Gatiss, without diminishing the monarch's arrogance, also movingly captures the dignity of his downfall, and reinforces the Shakespearean point about the essential solitude of kingship... In short, Brenton's play has the strange effect of making us welcome the move towards parliamentary supremacy while inducing sympathy for the regal victim. But the real pleasure lies in seeing a pivotal moment in English history presented with such fervent dramatic power.
There is no point in pretending this play is anything other than hard work. It’s like attending two double-history lessons at school with a 15-minute break in the middle for a crafty fag behind the bike sheds and a desperate attempt to make sense of information overload... but if you do a bit of homework first, this is an evening that really grips... At its considerable best, the play depicts the political process with clarity and vigour. There is, however, no avoiding the fact that 55 Days is sometimes hard to grasp. There are more than 20 characters and relatively few of them come into sharp dramatic focus. Some may also quarrel with Howard Davies’ production. Though Charles I is seen in full historical rig-out... everyone else is dressed as if in the 1940s, with drab suits for the politicos and combat gear for the army. We might be watching Attlee’s government. Mark Gatiss’ king resembles his Mycroft Holmes at a fancy dress party. He is witty, opinionated, charismatic and insufferably pleased with himself. But there ought, surely, to be poignancy, too, and this Gatiss almost entirely misses. Douglas Henshall... brings a persuasive mixture of bustling vigour, religious fervour and moving self-doubt to Cromwell, and takes the audience completely by surprise in the brilliantly disconcerting penultimate scene.
This is a balanced, serious, interesting production - just the sort of thing subsidised theatre should do. Mark Gatiss delivers Charles almost as I fancied him, though perhaps a little gammony in places. The King is the only one to wear period costume and he lives up to the fancy threads by flicking his hair back like Miss Piggy. Douglas Henshall’s Cromwell is an unexpected creation. Mr Henshall makes him almost a male model at times, fussing about his own blond hairdo and turning up his jacket collar to look just so... He also speaks in a peculiar accent, which is almost a cross between Scottish and something from the Netherlands. That didn’t feel right at all. Director Howard Davies choreographs the numerous scene changes with brisk aplomb, a platoon of black-suited men entering through swing doors stage right and left. The Hampstead has been adapted to make it a traverse staging. On the theatre’s website you can book to sit on the Parliamentary or the Royalist side, but no more is made of this in the production.