My initial reaction, as I clapped the cast until my hands hurt, was that this was the best new play I’d seen in years. After a couple of days of cool, calm reflection I’m happy to say that my opinion hasn’t changed one iota; in fact I’m struggling to find fault with it.
Howard Brenton has written a powerful, gripping script. It’s tight, the pacing is spot on and the melding of historical facts and artistic licence is seamless and truly believable. The staging is a master-stroke putting the stage at knee height in the middle of two banks of seats brings the audience into the action from the beginning while the decision to dress the stage and all the actors (bar Mark Gatiss) in 1950’s garb and offering up a feel of the Cold War (very Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy-esque) gives it an immediacy you wouldn’t get with the traditional costumes and the stark difference between the setting and Charles I, dressed exactly he is pictured below in true Stuart costume, really emphasised the fact that saw himself as set apart from the rest of the world.
Mark Gatiss was, as I expected, absolutely wonderful, bringing Charles I to vivid life. Not for him a mere a caricature of a weak and deluded King, no he produced a man of depth who genuinely believes he is God’s anointed and that his actions are what is best for his people. However, and I’m sure you’re all going to be quite surprised to hear me say this, Douglas Henshall completely stole the show for me. His Cromwell was electrifying in his doubt, gripping in his certainty and so human in his manipulations that I occasionally forgot to breathe when he was on stage. The scene of their imagined meeting felt so real that I have since had to remind myself that the closest Charles and Oliver ever got to each other was at Charles’ trial. Between the script and the actors my fevered imagination didn’t stand a chance. I should also say at this point that the rest of the cast were also excellent, not a weak link among them.
So, in case these brief words haven’t made it clear enough, this is my new favourite play of all time. If you can get tickets, get thee to the Hampstead. I promise you won’t regret it!