A cast fit to rule the stage

Four monarchs of the theatre star in a show about Britain's kings and queens

Officially, they aren't royalty themselves -- but in theatre terms, they're about as close as it gets. It seems perfectly appropriate therefore that Vanessa Redgrave, Donald Sinden, Ian Richardson and Alan Howard, authentic luminaries of the entertainment world, have alighted in Toronto to play the kings and queens of England.

The reliable vehicle of conveyance is John Barton's The Hollow Crown, a medley of writings by and about the British monarchs -- from William the Conqueror to Queen Victoria.

First performed in 1961 at Stratford-on-Avon (the very young Redgrave and Richardson were part of one of the early casts), the piece has been a regular entry in the Royal Shakespeare Company's repertoire for more than four decades.

It made a brief stop in Toronto in 1963 and marks its return engagement at the Princess of Wales Theatre for the next five weeks.

It might seem odd that The Hollow Crown, a largely historical theatrical work mostly consisting of monologues, has managed to sustain this kind of popularity. (Sinden and Richardson were part of the cast that played a 24-week run in Australia and New Zealand last year.)

That it has endured owes much to the care Barton has taken with its construction.

"You must understand that the program is not in any way trying to ram British monarchy down your throat," Richardson told a press conference yesterday.

"It is as critical of the monarchs as . . . North Americans would want us to be."

Barton has also directed the actors so that the material doesn't appear to choose sides.

In the trial of Charles I, for example, which pits the monarch against his prosecutor, it's never clear where his own sympathies lie, with the powers of the throne or the claims of 17th-century populism.

Redgrave, whose late father Michael Redgrave also appeared in the show, acknowledged that the show "could have been boring, but isn't -- it's fascinating and very amusing and engaging."

Howard (son of British comic actor Arthur Howard and nephew of the late Leslie Howard), suggested that what makes The Hollow Crown work is that, "It contains all the absurdities and profundities of the institution itself. You might say what is the point of doing any of Shakespeare's histories. It's infinitely interpretable, and I think that's the richness of the material John [Barton] has used."

Sinden (a distant relative of Boston Bruins general manager Harry Sinden) agreed, noting that he played in the show with eight different leading ladies and each had brought something entirely different to the text. One was "a sheer disaster," but he politely declined to name names.

The Australian run, Richardson recalled, was instructive because of the lively ongoing debate down under about the monarchy. But only in Sydney, he said, a hotbed of republicanism, did the cast feel any antipathy -- largely from the critics.

At one point in the show, the actors reconstruct the trial of Charles I, which contains the line "Think carefully upon it, lest you go from one sin to a greater." That notion, he said, had a particular relevance in Australia.

Redgrave, winner of a Tony award last season for her performance in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, said the issues raised by The Hollow Crown transcend the question of the monarchy's legitimacy, dealing instead with power and authority -- "who gives that power and what people might be or should be entrusted with that power and what they do with that power."

She said she was especially struck by the sense of authority embedded in the remarkable poetry of Elizabeth I -- an authority that says, "This is what I think, this is who I am, come what may." In the contemporary political arena, she said, only the Czech Republic's Vaclav Havel seemed to come close to that measure. "He suited his deeds to words. He wrote his own speeches. That's a big difference in our age. Speeches are written by speechwriters -- they don't come straight from here [the heart], with that personal pledge. It's a kind of sense of personal responsibility, rather than ducking out [of it], of somebody who answers questions or chops the heads off somebody so that they don't ask any more questions."

Richardson suggested one difference between British monarchs past and present -- "They no longer have the power to cut people's heads off." And the divine right is no longer recognized. Now the monarch makes a promise to the people. "Queen Elizabeth said at her coronation--'I will do my duty'--and that's what she's done, all her life."

The Hollow Crown opens Thursday night and continues at The Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto through Feb. 29 (ticketking.com or 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333).


Globe and Mail, Tuesday, January 27, 2004.

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