NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from October 2005 and this production's original run at Stratford-upon-Avon's Swan Theatre.
Some critics say writer Frank McGuinness has lost the ‘Plot’ somewhat with his reflection on the events of November 5th, which might have been considered Jacobean England’s own 9/11 had it succeeded. Their faint praise, though, damns a consistently interesting work, staged with real bravura by director Rupert Goold and designer Matthew Wright and boasting two terrific performances.
The work opens with a theatrical flourish: the lights go down, a length of fuse bursts into flame, inches towards curtains at the rear which then collapse, revealing a debris-filled basement and a large barrel which rolls ominously centre stage, stopping perilously short of the front stalls.
Out of the barrel steps the ‘equivocator’ – our guide for the evening - satyr-like and superbly played by Kevin Harvey, who appears to characters in turn, in various guises. First off is Mary, Queen of Scots, now dead, who confronts the corpse of Elizabeth I, a recent addition to the choir everlasting, who emerges from her winding sheet to become James I, her successor.
Confused? You could be forgiven some confusion, particularly as the highly poetic language and the emphasis on exploring pertinent ‘issues’ sometimes weakens the dramatic clarity of the play - and there are certainly lots of parallels drawn between the Gunpowder Plot (with a scene involving the torture of the Jesuit missionary Father Garnet) and the now infamous torture of an Iraqi captive.
My biggest cavil is with the Les Mierables-style musical interpolations. I have no such reservations, however, about the performance of William Houston, who reigns supreme as James I. The prospect of Houston as Richard II in the forthcoming season, if it comes to pass, is mouth-watering. So too is that of him playing Leontes, Richard III, and Iago, to name but a few roles.
Ultimately, McGuinness' play is less a brain-fest, and more a visual and aural smorgasbord. Personally, I found it very beguiling.