At the start of Howard Brenton’s 55 Days at the Hampstead Theatre I wondered if I would be able to pay attention through the play, which at times is quite hard work – one lady in the front row didn’t seem to face that dilemma, sleeping her way through the first half. But as the play continues your perseverance pays off, and the play is both engaging and thought-provoking.
Starting the play in 1648, as the Army purges Parliament of those supporting the King, is an interesting choice, and meant that I felt a lot more sympathetic towards Charles I than I would have done otherwise. We hear from Cromwell and the rebel army of the tyrannical acts that Charles I has committed, driving them to their drastic action, but we don’t see them – and I still ended up feeling slightly sorry for the king.
I found myself feeling equally sympathetic for both Cromwell and Charles I; Brenton highlights the similarities between the two, suggesting that Cromwell was fighting for a future he struggled to imagine, while Charles was fighting for a past that was a fantasy. The play captures the feeling that both men are out of their time; Brenton says that he is ‘drawn to stories which are about the future breaking out too early.’
The play is full of conflicting voices; John Cooke, the prosecution lawyer, is a moderating influence, reminding us of the constitutional validity of Charles’ argument as he refuses to recognise Parliament’s court, despite the usual sympathy for Cromwell’s cause. It is an example of the play’s ability to highlight the complexity of the situation as a new world is created.
I felt that the best moments occurred during the court scenes, with some of Charles’ ‘eerily graceful’ lines lifted by Brenton from a nineteenth-century transcript of the court proceedings, and allowed Mark Gatiss to fully get into his stride. Brenton hopes that focussing on the climax of the struggle means that there is a clear action sequence; ‘people dragging themselves towards a thing that few of them ever dreamt they would do, or, in Cromwell’s case, never wanted to do, at least not until the very last moment’. There is a striking moment when a Parliamentarian goes to kiss Cromwell’s hand and he recoils; we feel that he is wary of the consequences of Parliament’s actions.
The cast is strong, and in the programme Brenton describes what he believes is the power of theatre; an actor on stage ‘says “I am your king”… everyone in the room knows he’s not, then suddenly, more powerful than any camera, the imagination takes over… and he really is’. This is certainly true of Gatiss, who is a real presence on stage, and commands your attention. He is regal from head to toe as he surveys those around him. Douglas Henshall is also excellent as a confused but imposing Cromwell.
Yet despite its virtues this play is certainly not for those without an interest in the history; it is at times dense and carries an overloading of information, but if you can stick with it it is definitely worth it.