Wednesday, 8 May 2002

The Hollow Crown, RSC, May, 2002

The Hollow Crown
By Royal Shakespeare Company
 at Her Majesty's Theatre until May 19, 2002
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Let's face it. These actors are so good they could read the phone book backwards and it would be compelling. They are the last generation of British actors to have such resonant, dynamic voices.

I speak of Donald Sinden, Ian Richardson, Derek Jacobi and Diana Rigg -all skilful classical actors. They feature in The Hollow Crown, a diverting romp through the foibles of the English sovereigns from William I to Victoria. .

Part of the Royal Shakespeare Company repertoire, The Hollow Crown is engaging, versatile and comprises speeches, poetry, letters and songs. It was originally "a  one-off divertissement" devised by John Barton in 1960. Since, it has run world-wide.

The tile derives from Shakespeare's Richard 11; a reminder of the fragility of sovereignty. Richardson begins the show with this speech.

The actors and musician ( Stephen Gray)  sit in high-backed chairs. On a table sits a crown on a velvet cushion. Behind is a simple screen. The production relies not on the design (Louise Belson) but on the actors' presence.

Director, John Barton, keeps staging economical. Actors use a lectern. Although they refer to large folders as if to a script, actors perform rather than read. It is a stylish theatrical convention.

Barton and his actors breathe life and inject wit into historical documents.

It is an eclectic mix of forms and styles of text. Rigg reads Jane Austen's youthful, acerbic history with its hissing attack on Elizabeth I. Jacobi and Richardson play Henry VII's Ambassador's hilarious account of the ugly Queen of Naples. Rigg, as Mary Tudor, rants about traitors.

Part Two is striking with a more dramatic content and tone. Sinden's James I is goofy and overblown railing about tobacco use. A dramatic highlight is Jacobi as Charles I accused of treason by parliament. Richardson is charming as a dizzy Charles II.

Jacobi's portrayal of Horace Walpole's reportage of George II's funeral is wonderfully high camp and Richardson, as Thackeray, delightfully damns the incompetent George IV.

The only weak point in this production is the musician. Gray's voice and his contemporary style of singing do not do justice to the ballads of the period and a lute might well have replaced the guitar. His perky Scottish Medley was his best piece.

By Kate Herbert

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