This is the third unmissable show of the year. It is up there with the West End Long Day's Journey into Night and the Chichester Arturo Ui. That is how good it is.
Howard Brenton's materials are superbly dramatic in themselves. He takes us through the 55 days from the purge of Parliament for having voted against trying Charles I through to the sovereign's execution. As we watch, men and women wrestle with a fundamental impossible dilemma. How do you deal with a man who refuses to accept that anybody except God has power to judge him. It really is a case of observing the collision of two diametrically opposed opinions. Cromwell in particular, in this version of history, finds it inconceivable that Charles can actually possibly believe what he says – that no power on earth can judge him. Moreover, Cromwell, unlike Charles, is all too horribly aware of the price the Civil War has exacted from the populace of England. Though we see no battles in this production, the weight of the violence, the tearing of society is very present. As long as the dilemma is unresolved, it is clear things cannot be healed.
This is a profoundly political play. Some may perhaps find it too much so, but I found it completely compelling. It is also a play which has resonance way beyond its immediate subject matter, and as with all such plays which are truly great Brenton has no need to spell it out for us, it is there, unavoidable. Have we really shed the delusions of pageantry and monarchy? Did Cromwell succeed in creating a better order? Two moments among scene after scene that capture these dilemmas really stood out for me. First, when Cromwell asserts passionately that after the trial and execution is done Parliament will be sovereign and men will think it glorious to be citizens of England because of her Parliament. Oh, if it were only so. Second, when one of the commissioners, after the decision is made, praises Cromwell and moves to kiss his hand.
Brenton's text is given powerful life by a magnificent company. At their head is Douglas Henshall's Cromwell. When we first see him he is still one among equals, and slowly, inexorably, he becomes the figure to whom persistently, inescapably, eyes turn for guidance. The genius of Brenton's text and Henshall's performance is to sustain one's belief that Cromwell genuinely does not want that power. Henshall delivers a number of speeches with that command that just holds, but I found especially powerful his description of the Scotch boy rebel staring up at him as at some creature of horror. Mark Gatiss as Charles I has in some ways the harder part to sustain – his arrogance and certainty make him more difficult to sympathise with. Yet this doesn't make his performance any the less compelling, and the trouble is that he does have a point – Cromwell and co. find themselves having to bend the law to gain their ends – as the play goes on the gap between them narrows, and narrows.
Alongside them, these two are supported by an excellent ensemble. Simon Kunz's bluff Fairfax, ultimately ruled by his shrill, rather ghastly wife (it has to be said the only weak parts in the piece are the two women). Daniel Flynn as Cromwell's steady right hand Ireton. Gerald Kyd whose Lilburne reminded me of a Welsh labour politician. John Mackay's William Lenthal – a parliamentary Speaker who I somehow felt would not have looked out of place in today's ranks. All of their contributions are spot on, as are others I have not named.
The direction, by Howard Davies, and the design by Ashley Martin-Davis are also spot on. A number of people lately have been trying theatre in something approaching the round (or at least with the stage in the middle and the audience flanking them) with varying degrees of success. This attempt really works, or at least it certainly did from where I was sitting. Both direction and design are straightforward, doing what is needed to let the piece speak, but one aspect is worthy of particular note. In a number of places, at the end of a confrontation, often as scenes shift, key figures are left staring after one another, frozen for a moment. It's a simple, very effective device, which adds punch.
As I said at the outset this is an unmissable show. Unfortunately, well kind of, other people have noticed this and what is left of the run is sold out. If you can this is emphatically worth queueing for returns for. If not, fingers crossed that perhaps there might be a second outing.