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55 Days

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Mark Gatiss & Douglas Henshall

With This House at the National giving us an idea of how Parliament became a forum of low deals and cat-calls, Howard Brenton's gutsy new play, staged with consummate skill, flair and persuasion by Howard Davies, reminds us that its origins were no less shaky but far more deep-rooted and idealistic.

And in doing so, a forgotten area of revolutionary British history is fascinatingly unlocked, as the disenchanted troopers, exhausted after six years of Civil War, storm the Commons with a view to purging the Presbyterians and hanging the bishops.

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 the anointed king, Charles I (a brilliantly cast, effete and scathingly superior Mark Gatiss), pours scorn on the kangaroo court and its sober-suited executives.

For while Brenton, with characteristic broad brush strokes, and a steely grip of narrative structure, excitingly evokes the factionalism among the regicides (Gerald Kyd as the Levellers’ leader and Abigail Cruttenden as Lady Fairfax, wife of the commander-in-chief, are particularly well drawn), the play also resonates as a metaphorical battle between suits and intellectuals.

Everyone in Ashley Martin Davis’ superb design is in modern dress apart from the king. Hampstead’s auditorium is again reconfigured, audience in two banks on either side of a flagged acting area bounded by stacks of filing cabinets at one end, a brick prison and concertina steel lift door at the other. When the Commons assembles, two ditches appear to create a front row on either side, our representatives.

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 - although you can trace the evolution, from his earliest, scabrous plays about public figures and murderers - is one of the great theatre stories of our time. And there’s something about the electrifying show-down scene between Cromwell and King Charles in the latter’s prison cell that brings us full circle in his dramatic career.

The debate about how much influence an unelected royal should exert in public matters has been quiescent during the discreet reign of our current monarch, but Prince Charles’ interventionist utterances sometimes cause a flurry of Cromwellian distaste.

The play embraces this issue and, in its hard-headed maturity, wonders if what comes after is always better. 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.

And this atmosphere is excitingly charged and maintained by the 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.


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