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John Barton’s thought-provoking production of The Hollow Crown may be a surprising forty-five years old but its subject matter can still send shivers down the spine and invoke pity, sadness and merriment. It follows the troubled and oft-grafted family tree of the English, then British, monarchy. Branches are lopped off here and there, roots decay, cross-pollination with Germanic sub-species threaten the structural sanity of the whole, but the monarchy somehow survives. It was 1960 when Barton drew together this conflation of chronicle, legend, ballad, play and first-hand experience. I remember the cartoon cinemas at Piccadilly Circus playing endless reruns of the second Elizabethan coronation. It may have happened nearly a decade before, but in 1960 we were still basking in the reflected glory of a beautiful young princess and handsome consort crowned as monarch of a fast disbanding empire.
Perhaps that’s why the RSC’s production of The Hollow Crown seems so apt for our own age, with another glamorous royal wedding only weeks away. Or just perhaps it gives us an insight into the human frailty, the emotional and moral uncertainty surrounding our monarchy. Barton’s production is as republican as it is monarchist. In glorifying our royal heritage, Barton ‘anatomizes’ those intimate details which contemporary social decorum keeps hidden, but which history foregrounds in gloriously vivid Technicolor.
The title is, of course, derived from Shakespeare’s Richard II. Shakespeare was a politicized historical and social commentator himself, ever willing to adjust his history to flatter and accommodate the prevailing regime. I once heard a very earnest and sincere theatregoer and Shakespeare aficionado declare that he had learnt his history of the kings and queens of England from Shakespeare. This is, I’m afraid, as useful as learning the remaining history of the English aristocracy from watching Rowan Atkinson as Blackadder. Both reconstruct their respective histories according to prevailing social and political tastes. Both say more about their own time than the age they purport to represent.
That is where Barton’s collection of historical vignettes rises above an educational tool and emerges into the realm of entertainment. A group of fine actors valiantly embark on an evening which could so easily spiral into historical narrative. Instead, Donald Sinden, Harriet Walter, Richard Johnson and Alan Howard, ably assisted by the musical talents of Stephen Gray, entertain with apparently effortless style and wit.
The evening does belong to Donald Sinden, whose energy appears boundless and who strikes up an intimate relationship with his audience which never falters. Sinden’s comic timing and catchphrase mumbles and grumbles are used to great effect. As the libidinous and lustful Henry VIII, longing to get his hands on his Anne Boleyn’s ‘paps’, Sinden wallows in regal degeneracy. The performance is varied and impeccably studied: Sinden’s portrayal of the prosecuting judge in the trial of Charles I, a judge cold, calculated and unfazed by the power of monarchy, brings to life the enormity of this revolution in British politics.
Harriet Walter is likewise an actor of regal proportions. Even before she has spoken she sits with aristocratic poise on the simply staged set. Walter’s evocation of the fifteen year old Jane Austen, who, as a ‘partial, prejudiced and ignorant historian’ romantically enthuses over the death of Mary Queen of Scots whilst pouring scorn over the arch-enemy Queen Elizabeth, is an absolute joy. As Mary Tudor, denouncing rebellion and rousing her faltering supporters, Walter is dynamic. It is as the eighteen-year-old Queen Victoria, describing her coronation with the gaucheness of a boarding-school diarist, that Walter truly shines. This simple tale of a young princess suddenly thrust to the centre-stage of a vast empire, and supported by somewhat ’emotional’ peers of the realm, touches the heart deeply.
Of course, Richard Johnson and Alan Howard provide a medley of Plantagenets and Tudors, Stuarts and Hanovers, all falling over themselves to appear as petty and foolish as the last. Howard’s rendition of James I’s attack on tobacco is comic genius, although I’m pretty sure James did not intend it so. Johnson really comes into his own when he returns this royal procession to the realm of fantasy and folklore with the closing lines of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur.
Perhaps it is this fantasy, this longing for an age of chivalry and social order, of pageant and romantic idealism, which gives the monarchy such an emotional power, such an emotional sway, over so many people. It is impossible to say one is indifferent to monarchy. The very word evokes extreme reaction, whether for or against. Whatever your personal view of the monarchical state, you will enjoy this theatrical evening for what it is. A light foray into the secret world of our royal heritage.
Kevin Quarmby © 2005
Originally published on R&V on 09-03-05
Kevin Quarmby © 2004
Originally published on R&V on 06-03-04
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