Auteur of the moment Mark Gatiss takes off his Sherlocking deer-stalker and runs away from horror documentaries to take up the mantle of King Charles I in the last 55 days of his reign before an untimely beheading. He struts upon the stage, convinced of his well-dressed divinity and yet betraying his humanity with a stutter. Spending most of his stage time before the court, Charles refuses to accept the legitimacy of the trial, which only shows how aloof and out of touch with his people this monarch has become.
By contrast Cromwell and his New Model Army are loud, energetic and passionate. The 30 or so men that swarm the stage cast the king as an even more solitary figure. Direction from Howard Davies enhances this by placing Charles as the only character in period costume, the rest settling somewhere around the 20th Century.
Perhaps more than most conflicts, the Civil Wars were a fight for ideas, rather than territory or resources. As a result, the era is fertile ground for didactic theatre. Cromwell claims: “We are not just trying a tyrant, we are inventing a country. We are in an unknown region, floating on nothing, trying to think thoughts never thought before”. It’s a stand-out poetical touch from writer Brenton, who tends to focus more on the political details than might be expected from a Shakespearean history.
The staging is simple, performed in traverse like two opposing factions. Chairs, tables and other small props are quickly ushered in and out of swinging doors as one barren room is replaced by another, ready for its occupants to start their next argument. It’s the kind of thoughtful play that needs to be savoured, and offers little in terms of real action.
Unless you know your history, this show is a bit impenetrable, but the climactic (fictional) meeting between the two figureheads is worth the wait, as a surprisingly moving Cromwell (played very well by Douglas Henshall) demonstrates the full extent of his religious fervour and self-doubt.
Not a play full of entertaining zingers, but better than a history lesson.
55 Days runs at Hampstead Theatre until 24 November. Return tickets only.
By Tim Macavoy