The Hollow Crown
Devised and directed by John Barton
RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford
For God's sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings . . .
For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court; and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp . . .
A passage from Shakespeare's Richard II which forms the basis of The Hollow Crown. It was devised by John Barton in 1961 for the RSC as a celebratory entertainment by and about the kings and queens of England.
The Hollow Crown has proved to be one of the most successful productions the RSC has ever staged. More than 70 actors have performed it at different times.
When Vanessa Redgrave had to cancel her run in Hecuba at Stratford because she was recuperating from an operation, the RSC had to find something to replace the Greek tragedy. They couldn't have made a better choice.
Fortuitously the RSC were able to call on four giants of the stage who make The Hollow Crown a truly memorable experience. Alan Howard, Richard Johnson, Donald Sinden and Harriet Walter prove that you don't need lavish sets, extravagant costumes nor elaborate props. They captivate an audience with their delivery.
It's ironic that an RSC ensemble can spend months in rehearsal concentrating on a Shakespeare text whereas these four actors can give a mesmerising performance with presumably little preparation time.
From the death of William in 1066 to Queen Victoria's description of her coronation, the quartet are totally engrossed in the production. They present poetry and extracts from plays as well as speeches and letters from monarchs over a period of 800 years - but they're not too wrapped up in the proceedings to be unable to contribute a few clever ad libs.
It's unfair to single out any of the cast but 81-year-old Sinden proves to be immensely sharp. He thoroughly enjoys himself, delivers his lines with aplomb and gives you the impression he's got the best job in the world.
Ms Walter is similarly attentive, waiting motionless until it's her turn to speak. She does so exquisitely. She also gets most of the laughs as she champions Mary Queen of Scots, eagerly reminding us how later monarchs were related to Mary.
The actors will no doubt be at the head of the queue to praise Barton for his skill in putting together The Hollow Crown. One of the most poignant sections is the contrast between a wooing letter from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn with her missive sent from the Tower 14 days before she was beheaded.
Stephen Gray punctuates the speeches with music from the relevant period while Louise Belson's simple, classic set is warmly lit by Robert Bryan.
The only pity is that The Hollow Crown is playing for such a short time. It's a wonderful production with an outstanding cast. Make every effort to see it.
"The Hollow Crown" runs until March 19th
Reviewer: Steve Orme