I have a peculiar relationship with british history. As I never studied it at school, all my knowledge comes from fictional universes. When I hear of Oliver Cromwell, I am more likely to think of The Adventures of Luther Arkwright than any historical facts. With that in mind (which is to say with so little about the actual historical facts in mind) I went to see Howard Brenton’s play 55 Days, directed by Howard Davies, about the days leading to the trial and execution of King Charles I amid the English Civil war.
It’s a play of two halves: on one side we have the historical context, more than a dozen characters representing different fractions and ideas, trying to get their point across. I admit that in those scenes I felt lost. The performances were energetic, the direction had urgency but no character had enough time to make their mark with a text that seemed wordy and slow. It felt like the actors were running ahead trying to create momentum while dragging the text behind. But the mirror side of the play more than makes up for this problem.
The play acquires clarity when it focuses on the forces of nature (or is it the forces of god?) that are King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. Mark Gatiss shows King Charles as a dominant and bewitching creature without embellishing the basic absurdity and cruelty of his actions but also undercutting him with something more tenderly human. All his scenes crackle with tension (it’s amusing to see the kind of pressure everyone is at his presence) and his appearance in the court is electrifying. I’s hard not to be moved by his fate, and feel torn that you do. Douglas Henshall’s Oliver Cromwell is an earthy figure, more aware of guilt and doubt, but no less capable of cruelty. The tension between them springs from the things they won’t admit to themselves: Does Cromwell want to destroy Charles or save him? Does Charles want to acknowledge Cromwell as a kindred spirit or continue to live in divine isolation?
The set, whether representing a prison cell, a courtroom or a backroom office, reinforces an air of oppression. Bookended by heavy doors and with heavy office drawers from floor to ceiling, it’s an unhappy place where bad things happen. Low lighting and oppressing sounds bring the war conflict into confined spaces. An interesting idea is played out with the costumes and it largely pays off: everyone is in modern dress apart from King Charles who is in full 17th century regal attire. They are the echo of things to come, he is the memory of the past. In this play, both past and future feel like a tense uncertain place.