Hampstead Theatre, 22 October 2012
|Charles Stuart, the central character, played by Mark Gatiss|
The contemporary relevance of the English civil wars is missed through a misguided attempt at tragedy.
Watching a dramatisation of the trial and execution of Charles I, we can expect to feel something in addition to whatever we feel when witnessing a tragedy – and in fact, this production wasn’t particularly tragic, for reasons I’ll come to.
That additional feeling must be related to the broader significance of the times, of these events. Perhaps some in the audience are satisfied with learning more about the most famous case of regicide in UK history, especially in the year celebrating Elizabeth II’s sixtieth anniversary.
Author Howard Brenton aims for more than this. In one of several clumsy expository scenes before the trial, characters explain that what they are doing is unprecedented. Monarchs have been replaced before, by force, but not through the rule of law. The dilemma is how to use a legal system that assumes a king is its final guarantor of justice to remove that same king?
Characters debate three possible political systems, still directly relevant to us now, with power resting finally either with one man, through his use of a veto (monarchy, but also presidency); resting with an elected parliament (republic); or resting directly with the people (democracy).
It is possible to see these events as the moment when our current preconceptions about justice fitfully took form – that no single person guarantees (or embodies) the law, which gains legitimacy somehow from the will of the people, though ‘somehow’ is the key word here: few people have ever lived in a genuine democracy.
To reiterate: there had been tyrannicides before, but they were backward-looking, claiming the tyrant was illegitimate according to the previous order. Oliver Cromwell and company can be seen as the sharp edge of our emerging contemporary idea of governance.
Brenton doesn’t push this aspect, instead opting for a less demanding conclusion – that the current form of governance in the UK, constitutional monarchy, is the eventual outcome of the trial. I feel this misses out on the wider significance, and focuses on an outmoded, parochial aspect of our politics.
This mist, obscuring the wider interest, gets thicker when the trial starts. Charles takes centre stage, literally in this production, and his eloquent self-defence pushes the drama in a more personal, tragic direction. Incidentally this may help explain why the monarchy was subsequently ‘restored’, and stays with us, though in fact Charles chooses death before conceding to be such a weak monarch.
Here, if anywhere, is the tragedy. Charles is an anachronism (dressed as such in Howard Davies’ production). He dies for an ideal that held sway for centuries, but which is generally despised today, although we still support ‘strong men’ in say, Rwanda. This suggests he is not obviously wrong, and much could be made of his approach.
Unfortunately, Charles the man must take understandable precedence over his ideas. Brenton – and actor Mark Gatiss – make the most of him, but I didn’t feel too sympathetic, perhaps because Charles is not quite given enough room; he is the central character but only first among equals, a strange irony.
Focussing on the trial is therefore extremely damaging to the drama. It doesn’t give us quite enough Charles to make him tragic in himself, and it clouds the broader political interest as the personal interest must take precedence.
In addition to jarring exposition scenes, Brenton indulges in two terrible ideas: having Charles and Cromwell ponder what the other man is like, then having them meet. If either idea is to distract from its obviousness, it needs to be handled much better than it is here.
The production was unhelpful, seeming to take place in a contemporary school gym. This works wonderfully if the idea is to undercut any possible significance of the events.