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Review: Kingdom Come (Stratford-upon-Avon)

This devised show from Gemma Brockis, Wendy Hubbard and the cast runs as part of the Mischief Festival

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

A nation divided down the middle, leaders vilified by the people and clashing ideologies heading towards violence and destruction. Not, as you might think, the latest updates from your Twitter feed, but the state of a disunited kingdom in the 1640s.

So far, so resonant. The latest experimental work to be given a home in the Royal Shakespeare Company's self-styled 'engine room of new writing', The Other Place, has all the elements lined up for a savage critical metaphor of modern Britain. It's strange, then, that Kingdom Come seems wilfully determined not to speak to our contemporary age.

Conceived by directors Gemma Brockis and Wendy Hubbard, and devised by the six-strong company of actors, the piece is beautiful, impressionistic and unfathomable.

There's a loose thread of a framing device about a six-strong company of actors struggling to find their place in a new world order where theatre is about to be banned by terminally humourless Puritans following a decade of civil war and the execution of King Charles I. There are a number of touching moments of pathos, principally from the doomed monarch, from a terrified actress and from a regretful soldier. And there's a stunningly realised set by Charlotte Espiner that makes the most of The Other Place's versatility while happily plundering the RSC's resources for dressing and props.

On the other side of the scales are a host of problems which are confusingly thrown up and then remain resolutely unaddressed. Divided into three parts, the production invites the audience to follow it through different areas of the building, with no apparent purpose and certainly to little dramatic advantage. Much of the narrative feels like a leaden history lesson, delivered either by florid speeches through an anachronistic old BBC microphone, or by a succession of bland, dull captions projected unimaginatively onto the floor. A series of impenetrable artistic tableaux illustrates the third part, again with little evident reason or enlightenment.

The piece works best when it's playing out enacted scenes between identifiable characters, such as when the fidgety troupe of performers idle away the hours awaiting their fate around a dressing room table, playing out snatches of Twelfth Night to pass the time. These snippets also offer some desperately needed opportunities for humour, even if some of the jokes feel a little laboured.

As a picturesque experiment, Kingdom Come fits the remit of The Other Place with some interesting ideas and an attempt at manipulation of form. I would argue that it's neither a play nor a historical primer, and its creators may well argue that it's not intended as either. What it offers instead is some elegant images, some accomplished performances and some food for thought about what actually constitutes theatre. In that regard, it's hard to argue that it does its job pretty efficiently.

Kingdom Come runs at The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 30 September 2017.