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November 16, 2012

Want to Brush up on your History? Visit the Theatre!

by Val Reynolds
Some plays have an obvious historical content, Shakespeare’s histories for example. But currently showing in London are some whose titles belie the history lesson you’re about to receive. And here are some examples.
First up, in chronological order, is 55 Days by Howard Brenton (whose drama often focusses on historical events) which is currently showing at the Hampstead Theatre in Swiss Cottage. The title refers to the time in the 17th century between the demise of the Long Parliament and the beheading of Charles 1st. Of necessity partialy fictionalized to make good drama, it stars Mark Gatiss as the King and Douglas Henshall as Oliver Cromwell; one of the highspots in the play is a meeting between the two which never actually happened. Well, if the German playwright Schiller can invent a meeting between Elizabeth 1st and his eponymous heroine Maria Stuart, why can’t Brenton!
Adrian Lester

Adrian Lester

Move forward a couple of centuries and, for the next play, the audience finds itself in 19th century London, bookended by two short scenes that take place in Poland some 30 years later. Red Velvet is currently playing at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn. Written by Lolita Chakrabarti and starring her husband Adrian Lester (Mickey of Hustle fame) it tells the story when the legendary English actor Edmund Kean is taken ill and his role as Othello is taken over by a black American actor, Ira Aldridge; his style is considerably more avant garde than that of the English cast, with their ‘teapot’ acting techniques (imagine the item and then the comparable actor’s stance), with the majority of the cast using this as a ready-made excuse to display their prejudices. And all this is set against the background of the Abolition of Slavery Act. Despite the efforts of the radical French producer of the play, the English press is clearly not ready for this, and as a result of damning criticism of the play and his acting style, Aldridge never appears on the London stage again. A final note: Lester will be taking on the role of Othello at London’s National Theatre next spring.

Charles Edwards and Julian Wadham   Photo by Johan Persson

Charles Edwards and Julian Wadham Photo by Johan Persson

The final play I’m writing about is This House at the National Theatre. It’s currently showing at the flexible Cottesloe space with the downstairs seats arranged as in the House of Commons. The play tells of the five years of knife-edge Labour government between 1974 and 1979 – knife-edge because with wafer thin majorities, they only hung on by the skin of their teeth and by ferrying in ‘walking wounded’ and those almost at death’s door for crucial votes. The main focus is on the whips’ office, a topical subject in the ‘pleb-gate’ context, and the wheeler-dealer shennanigans necessary to retain power. As with so many productions at the Cottesloe, it’s currently sold out; however, the good news is that it’s transferring to the large Olivier stage at the National in the new year.

All three productions mentioned here come thoroughly recommended by me – if you do manage to catch one or more, I do hope you enjoy the experience as much as I did. And also, of course appreciate brushing up your knowledge of history.
Jeannette Nelson, Arts Critic A bit of a culture vulture, Jeannette enjoys art exhibitions, cinema and classical music, but her main interest is the theatre. For several years she ran theatre discussion groups for which her MA in Modern Drama together with teaching skills stood her in good stead. She prefers to concentrate on the many off West End and fringe productions as well as that real treasure of the London theatre scene, the National.

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