Speaking Like Magpies

Frank McGuinness

Royal Shakespeare Company

Trafalgar Studios 1

(2006)

Review by Philip Fisher

In an effort to give the RSC's Gunpowder Season a final focus, Michael Boyd commissioned a new play about the gunpowder plot itself to complement the minor classics from 400 years ago.

As an Irishman, Frank McGuinness is a highly appropriate choice to write a play about what would now be known as a terrorist plot by Catholics to blow up the British Parliament and its monarch.

What he has delivered is a magic realist play in which it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between dreams and reality. However, like an impressionist painting, by the end both history and truth shine through the sometimes murky plotting.

The play certainly starts with a bang. There is a real danger that the pyrotechnic opening delivered by designer Matthew Wright and Lyric Hammersmith artistic director Rupert Goold could prove too much for audience members with dickey hearts.

For the rest, it is both exciting and dangerous and threatens to diminish the early scenes, in which McGuinness is obliged to provide a considerable amount of historical background.

From the beginning, he enters the unstable mind of James I and VI, played by the season's favourite William Houston, using an accent that has a tendency to drift between Irish and Scots.

The battles to come are nicely encapsulated in a scene in which James dreams of the death of Elizabeth I presided over by The Equivocator, wittily played by Kevin Harvey as a kind of diabolically-horned MC who has inherited Dr Spock's ears.

With a mixture of dream life, history and elements of song-and-dance, the first half of the play introduces us to James, his practical Danish wife (Teresa Banham's Queen Anne) and the plotters on both sides, James's spymaster Robert Cecil played by Nigel Cooke and, in opposition, Robert Catesby and Tom Wintour (Jonjo O'Neill and Matt Ryan).

It is only as the lights go down for the interval that the hero for whom we have all been waiting, Guy Fawkes finally appears.

The action really picks up after the break and the pacing moves up a gear or two as the plotters plan the incendiary downfall of the King and his parliament. These were times when a monarch could not be certain of the loyalty of his closest subjects and with the mischievous Equivocator whispering in ears, even his Queen became suspected of Catholic affiliations.

As our MC had predicted, the ending provides no surprises but then how could it? History is fixed but, following a pyrotechnic finale, Speaking Like Magpies, a term appended to "thieving" Catholics in the early 17th century, draws this season to an entertaining close.

McGuinness' skill is to relate the events of 400 years ago last November to the current War on Terror and the, sometimes irrational, fear that it has engendered. Indeed, when first King and then Queen intone the mantra "The danger never dreamt of, that is the danger", the words could as easily have been spoken by George Dubya and Laura as their British forerunners.

Peter Lathan reviewed this production as part of the RSC's Newcastle season