“You are a tyrant, a traitor and a murderer, a public and implacable enemy of the Commonwealth of England”
55 Days sees playwright Howard Brenton return to the history books, after the sheer brilliance that was Anne Boleyn, in this new play for the Hampstead Theatre. The 55 days of the title refer to the period between the enforced creation of the Rump Parliament, the men determined to try King Charles I for high treason, and the subsequent execution of the monarch after Oliver Cromwell failed to reach a compromise with him. It’s a densely packed historical drama, perhaps a greater intellectual than emotional pleasure, but intriguing all the same.
Mark Gatiss takes on the role of Charles I with a wonderfully arch arrogance, utterly convinced of his divine right to rule and the inability of any higher authority to challenge his own, and his louche physical language belies a sharper intelligence that threatens to undo the work of Parliament to build an unprecedented, solid legal case against their king. And that Parliament is led by Douglas Henshall’s puritanical and precise Cromwell, a powerfully pugnacious presence who, though claiming to be governed by pure notions of free-nation-building, is not above the politicking necessary in order to ensure the smooth passing of his will.
Howard Davies’ production plays up the notion of epochal change by keeping only Charles in period dress and putting everyone else in modern(ish) dress, hammering home the passing of the idea of absolute monarchy and clearly placing parliamentary democracy as the way forward. But where Brenton exuded a playfulness in Anne Boleyn which kept historical detail from weighing down proceedings, here he reverts to a more traditional story-telling style which makes the first half a little over-populated and heavy-going (that said, it clearly didn’t help that this came the evening after I’d stayed up til 4.15am waiting for Ohio to declare!).
It is then perhaps not so surprising that the play’s finest moment comes in its one purely fictional scene of a meeting between Charles and Cromwell which sparks with fury and feeling. But the density is always persuasive though as the complexity of the protagonists’ motivations are explored and their doubts about being at the vanguard of such world-changing events exposed. I loved Gerald Kyd’s Lilbourne, Simon Kunz’s Fairfax is excellently conflicted, backed by a powerful if under-used Abigail Cruttenden as his wife, and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s John Cooke, who quickly rises to Solicitor General , makes his ambition quietly appealing.