A historical retelling with a striking twist, 55 Days is a new play written by Howard Brenton and directed by Howard Davis, featuring Mark Gatiss in the crucial role of King Charles I, imprisoned and on trial for his life. It tells of the momentous events leading to 30 January 1649, where the king, having been effectively deposed by opponents in parliament led by Oliver Cromwell, was put to death.
55 Days presents us with a compelling piece of theatre, twisting from political manoeuvring to a thrilling second act courtroom drama. The play has an immediacy that brings these events from hundreds of years ago to stark life, the largely forgotten past presented as recent instead of dusty. It is also a narrative of huge contrasts throughout, in both its staging and characterisation. Opening with the military purge of parliament in December 1648, the play forsakes the deep historical background that lead to this unprecedented moment, and instead forces the audience to hit the ground running as it reveals the competing characters of Cromwell and Charles I, the former tormented by the political changes he is creating that remain in place to this day, and the latter both a victim of those changes, and his own arrogance.
The play carries a tremendous degree of thematic weight thanks to its greatest conceit - the cast are dressed in near contemporary clothes, be it clean cut suits or paramilitary uniform, with the staging and props all giving the air of a 1950s setting, rather than the 1600s. Typewriters are used to write legal papers, orange leather sofas are lounged upon, and the set itself is bookended by a white brick wall at one end, a huge chest of filing cabinets against the other. The whole production design brings everything to life with huge immediacy, the realisation being planted in the audience exactly who the people who deposed and executed this monarch were - Members of Parliament, with all the airs of plain officialdom and civil service we are accustomed to. We’re used to this sort of contemporary conceit through numerous interpretations of William Shakespeare’s work, and indeed the play does carry the whiff of The Bard’s famous history plays in the presentation of its narrative. But then, in the third scene, entering with a sedately played game of bowls, comes Mark Gatiss as King Charles I. Dressed in full period regalia - all elaborate lace and rich material, and carrying a formal walking cane - he is in dramatic juxtaposition to the besuited bureaucrats, making the thematic statement of the play fully realised. Here is a man apart from the rest of the world, elevated above them in his own eyes by God, in complete opposition to all others but also by the close marked as a relic of times past, and no match for the new processes his death brought. The onward march of progress is thus dramatically and wordlessly stated.
After the plotting of the first half of the play, where the players bicker and arrange themselves how to proceed, and Charles is shuttled between locations to languish in cells, the second half transforms into a courtroom thriller. Arranged parallel to the audience on both sides of the stage, events become hugely involving, transplanting you from simple viewer to participant. If you are lucky enough to have seats in the lower stalls, it feels as though you are within that courtroom watching proceedings, the projected jeers of the public echoing through the auditorium around you. This indirect interaction is a remarkable feat, drawing you directly into the action, and a superb example of the brilliant sound design the play features.
Despite the large cast of excellent performances, the play is predominantly a two hander between Mark Gatiss as Charles I and Douglas Henshall as Oliver Cromwell, the contrasts and similarities between the two men providing tremendous layers and complexities to proceedings. While perhaps slightly ambiguous, and certainly a great source of torment, Cromwell here believes his path has been laid before him by God, that the rebellion he has unofficially come to lead was dictated by divine intervention. Charles, as king, also believes that his course is a holy one, and that God has chosen him to rule. Effectively the beliefs of the two men are different sides of the same coin, it’s just that in the end Charles ends up face down - quite literally. Howard Brenton’s script sees a fictitious meeting between the pair for the purposes of the narrative. In many ways the play builds quite inexorably to this point, and when it comes it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Douglas strikingly plays the desperate desire of Cromwell to avoid the seemingly inevitable death of the king - he is the only character to intentionally address Charles as ‘Majesty’ without reluctance, and the magnitude of what he is drawn to do weighs heavily upon him. Up until the last possible chance, he would try to spare the king to avoid killing the man placed on the throne to rule by God’s will - but Charles, through his own belief, coupled with his arrogance, intelligence and humour, doesn’t let him. Also intrinsic to Henshall’s performance are the differences between his conviction and the reluctance that Cromwell carries as a figurehead - he was on the surface, after all, just a politician, but also one blessed with a strong tactical mind that served him well both on the battlefield and within the creation of these new laws that endure to this day in Britain.
Despite any cosmetic similarities to his role in The Recruiting Officer, Mark Gatiss’ performance as Charles I is far from anything else we have ever seen him play. Affecting a Scottish accent, his portrayal brings facets of great power, poise and eventual vulnerability. As with Cromwell, his supreme belief in his position being ordained by God gives him great pathos, but it also ends up being his own undoing thanks to those who view him instead as a deposed tyrant. Charles plays by the rules he believes in, and when challenged by a court formed by parliament - and his subsequent failure to recognise that court - a simple change of those rules by the lawmakers is all it needs to break him. Mark invests many elements into the man, a palpable sense of anger coupled with some striking humour, and most importantly hubris. Hubris that these events are folly, and that he is untouchable due to his position as monarch - in effect, that those trying him will not have the strength to do what they are threatening. When those players - including a fantastic, nervous turn by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as John Cooke, the man who led the prosecution against Charles - actually accomplish their goal, all his earlier dismissiveness and even outright lies to avoid his predicament are wiped away, the petulance and vanity giving way to surprising, genuine sympathy. Mark plays the critical final scene - the execution - with regal poise, veiled nervousness, and strength, the ‘three shirts’ to prevent the shivers and thus avoid showing a hint of fear indicative of a man who up until the last moment believed he was installed as king to stand in command of all below him, and always show he was their better. In many ways, it has elements of a tragedy, but also as a victory for those opposed against him, without whom the systems and processes of Britain as it is today would not exist, and the policies of the nation would still be under the complete control of the ruling monarch.
More than any other new play we have seen recently, 55 Days engenders huge amounts of complexity and areas of discussion, bringing history to life while also contemporising it. It effectively makes these nation defining, almost unthinkable events accessible to a modern audience, while simultaneously driving home that this is the past, and that these things had to come to pass to form the country that we know today. That this complexity is revealed not just in the narrative but also in the characters themselves is a remarkable achievement, and as a piece of drama it is one of the most electrifying, energising experiences we have had in a theatre this year.
55 Days is playing at the Hampstead Theatre, London, until November 24 2012. To check ticket availability, visit their website.
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