King Cromwell

Oliver Ford Davies
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
(2003)

Oliver Ford Davies is best known as an actor. He starred in the David Hare Absence of War trilogy and more recently as King Lear at the Almeida. However, before going into acting he was a history lecturer at Edinburgh University. King Cromwell demonstrates what a loss his career change was to the world of academia.

This is a super, intellectually rewarding play that unusually (only Hare's Via Dolorosa comes to mind in recent years) places its writer centre stage as its star. Ford Davies clearly has great fun as this drawling, warty, Churchillian character around whose life he presents a real picture of the age, both culturally and politically.

The play takes place with the puritanical Cromwell on what might be his deathbed. It is at the point in his life where he must decide whether to become King, Emperor or remain as Lord Protector of his unsettled country. He is surrounded by two of his children, an assortment of advisers and the poet Andrew Marvell (Sean Baker). Inevitably at the Orange Tree, all are beautifully costumed.

Within a very clever structure, Ford Davies presents interesting insights into Cromwell's life with wonderful language and great quirky humour. At the same time, he makes numerous subtle comments on life today from the standpoint of a very different society, 350 years ago. Questions of immigration, republicanism, the powers of Parliament, colonial invasions and the Irish problem all have real contemporary weight.

Under Sam Walters' direction, it is hard to takes one's eyes from Ford Davies but this is no adverse comment on the supporting cast. Baker, Paul Goodwin as John Lambert and Damien Matthews and Claudia Elmhirst as Cromwell's children give performances of note. These siblings are a contrast, one lazy and unambitious but potentially the heir to the throne, and the other an enthusiastic and energetic lover of art.

Ford Davies' major success is to wear his learning lightly, leavening the history lectures with gossip and wit. He also ensures that his audience has enough familiar reference points to stay in touch. Cromwell's condemnatory views on Shakespeare and Monteverdi and the birth of opera, for example are perfectly timed to maintain interest.

However, perhaps the real strength of the play is in the political intriguing. This culminates in a debate about the nature of government, in which the shackled Sexby (John Ashton) puts forward the Marxist view, 250 years early, while Lambert's authoritarianism is perhaps closer to Hitler.

For those who like history or a little challenge in their drama and are willing to be rewarded with some great laughs and a wonderful night out King Cromwell, like Nick Dear's recent Power at the National, will perfectly fit the bill.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher