The Magna Carta Plays

Anders Lustgarten, Sally Woodcock, Howard Brenton and Timberlake Wertenbaker
Salisbury Playhouse
Salisbury Playhouse

You think we’ve been making too much fuss this year in Salisbury, what with all the exhibitions, the parades, the lectures, the flower festival and Stage 65 youth theatre’s Clause 39 as well as Shakespeare’s King John in the cathedral? And the barons, of course (all 25 of them), individually decorated and planted all over the city as reminders? Not so.

It’s the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta after all. Because Salisbury’s not only got one of the original documents, it’s got the best one. It was rolled up, not folded like the other three, and they’ve been looking after it assiduously ever since the barons called King John to account at Runnymede in 1215.

So how to complete the celebrations in a manner worthy of the occasion? Salisbury Playhouse’s artistic director, Gareth Machin, has the answer. You take four celebrated and award-winning playwrights and persuade them to write a short play each on the theme of Magna Carta.

The first is a comedy, Kingmakers by Anders Lustgarten (If You Won’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep), written in blank verse, which opens to a set filled with scaffolding and a table laden with an extravagant medieval feast being enjoyed by nobles called Lamprey, Grabber, Venal and Plunder (you get the idea).

It’s twelve years since the Magna Carta was signed and the appearance of the appropriately named Sprocket, the wheeler-dealer, the ‘spring’ who will ensure that, ultimately, any advantages to be gained from his machinations will accrue, not to the king or the populace, but to himself. Like the other plays, this has a few hints as to further political developments that may come about, but when Sprocket mentions the possibility of granting "rights full and true to all who populate this land, the women too", Venal draws his sword. Well, I mean, there are limits.

In Sally Woodcock’s (Fanta Orange and The Final Step) Pink Gin, it’s the 21st century and we’re in the office of the President of an unnamed African country. Stage directions require that "the piece should be punctuated with diegetic sounds by PLAYERS with hands/feet/voice to emphasise rain/the natural world". (Had to look "diegetic" up. It means the source of the sounds is apparent to the audience). A shortage of the President’s favourite tipple threatens to engulf the world in disaster. Will catastrophe occur because of a world-wide angostura bitters famine?

In Ransomed by Howard Brenton (Romans in Britain and Anne Boleyn), we’re in the fictional town of Melchester. It’s the present day. Canon St John is observed by two police officers flogging himself in the precincts of the cathedral. Ellie, also a considerable Latin scholar and able to quote passages from the Magna Carta with impressive fluency, is the superior police officer (You can tell things have moved on a bit).

The reason for the police presence and the self-flagellation? Someone’s stolen their copy of the Magna Carta. What will happen if it gets destroyed? There are blackmailers about with sinister sounding names like "Yuri". It doesn’t look good.

Then there’s Timberlake Wertenbaker’s (Our Country’s Good and The Love of the Nightingale) lovely, atmospheric We Sell Right involving just three characters, an elderly couple and a young girl, in which the themes of freedom, justice are explored in the light shed on the last eight hundred years of British, and world, history.

So this production gives us a lot to think about, not only in the theatre but for long afterwards. How fortunate that copies of the four scripts, as well as programmes, are on sale at the box office.

Let’s hope that a few politicians get to read them.

Reviewer: Anne Hill

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