As the cliche has it, history has much to teach us about the ways of the world, and human nature in particular.
Consider the kings and queens of England. In our present age of speechwriters and spin doctors, it is almost inconceivable that there was a time when rulers composed their own public addresses -- that is, when they weren't dabbling in poetry and music on the side.
It's a comparison Vanessa Redgrave found irresistible as she and her castmates Ian Richardson, Sir Donald Sinden and Alan Howard held court this week at the Princess of Wales Theatre to talk about the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of The Hollow Crown. The show opened on Thursday and continues until the end of February. The Toronto cast was assembled exclusively for this run.
"The monarchs who wrote were unafraid for their words to be heard," Redgrave says. "I think something of that kind of authority is missing today. The quality which says this is what I think, come what may."
Devised by John Barton, The Hollow Crown is a compilation of poetry, speeches, music and letters written by or about England's rulers, from William the Conqueror to Queen Victoria. Howard describes the piece as a series of stories "in a kind of recital guise."
"It's slightly more formal than people are used to, but nevertheless it's just individuals who get up and they tell a little story," he says. "I haven't yet lost faith in the ability of people to just sit and listen to a little story."
Nearly 30 of these "little stories" animate The Hollow Crown, though there is very little action in the conventional sense. The actors sit in four chairs assembled onstage, standing to deliver a monologue or a poem. The format catches some audience members off-guard, Richardson says.
"What happens from my experience is that there is just at the beginning a feeling of -- oh, they're sitting down quite a bit. They've got books and there's not much scenery to speak of. After the Queen Eleanor ballad, they're there. We've got them and we don't lose them for the rest of the evening."
The ballad Richardson is referring to is an anonymous ditty written about a sickly medieval queen as she lies on her death bed and makes some startling confessions. "One man walked out and said something like, 'I've been misled,' " he says. "I think he thought he was going to see a musical."
A favourite of the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Hollow Crown has enjoyed perennial success since it hit the stage in 1961. (It played a brief run at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1963.) Richardson has performed in the play more than 170 times but "is not yet bored by it." The play is not a history lesson, he insists -- "it's a piece of entertainment."
Redgrave, Richardson and Sinden have also performed in past productions, Sinden starring opposite eight leading ladies in all. "It was wonderful," he says with a smile. "Only one of them has been a sheer disaster. No names, though."
An animated man with a booming basso of a voice, Sinden says the issue of the play's relevance has never been a problem for contemporary audiences. "If you're doing a play by Shakespeare, you're trying to make it interesting to people. And it's the same with this."
Redgrave, meanwhile, speaks passionately about the themes of power and authority that are evoked in this production. "It goes beyond the issue of monarchy," she says. "The question of power, who gives that power, who receives that power, what they do with that power and what effect that power has on numerous people."
Redgrave recites a poem written by Elizabeth I, a figure she obviously admires. After all, she points out, Elizabeth and other women of the aristocracy were highly educated and could speak several languages. "I don't know who is around today who can speak, write and greet in seven different languages," she notes.
In the poem, Elizabeth expresses regret at shunning past suitors, lending an air of poignancy to the Virgin Queen. In fact, many of the pieces in The Hollow Crown have the effect of humanizing some of the most powerful figures in England's history. As in the sad account of the death of Queen Caroline, George II's wife, which is told through the memoirs of Lord Hervey. George, who refuses to leave his wife's side, sleeps on the floor at the foot of her bed.
Henry VII, on the other hand, comes off as a somewhat callow and lustful young buck who tries to get the low-down from his ambassadors about the physical charms of his future wife, the Queen of Naples -- a woman he has never seen. The piece starts off chastely enough, with Henry writing to them for details on the young queen's "discretion, wisdom and gravity in her communication and answer in every behalf." But soon Henry is demanding to know how big her breasts are and whether she has a moustache: "Mark whether there appear any hair about her lip or not."
Redgrave and Sinden agree that what makes The Hollow Crown remarkable is that, in some instances, the audience is hearing the story in the monarch's own words. Such details suggest that these rulers were no different from their subjects, Redgrave says.
"There is nothing that makes the monarch so very different from any other person," she says. "The interest is in the circumstance of their being the king or queen and how they would see themselves or how somebody else has seen them. That's where the interest lies."
There are also interesting connections between the troubles of rulers past and those of the present day. Richardson sees more than a few parallels between Charles I, who was tried and executed for treason in 1649, and former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic.
"Charles I says, 'By what authority do you bring me here? What lawful authority brings me, a prisoner, here?' Milosevic is saying exactly the same thing in The Hague," Richardson says. "So there are resonances there. It didn't stop the parliamentarians from executing Charles I, and I don't suppose it will stop the people at The Hague, finally, condemning Milosevic."
On a local scale, Torontonians will enjoy the modern-day ironies in a piece written by James I that considers a debate between municipal politicians and restaurateurs: "Now surely in my opinion, there cannot be a more base and hurtful corruption in a country than is the vile use of taking Tobacco," James wrote. "Is it not both in great vanity and uncleanness, of modesty, men should not be ashamed, to sit tossing of tobacco pipes and puffing of the smoke of tobacco one to another, to exhale athwart the dishes, and infect the air, when very often men that abhor it are at their repast?"
History aside, Redgrave is convinced The Hollow Crown will appeal to those with or without a firm grasp on the past. Theatre is exciting for people when they learn something new, she says.
"People love, no matter what country you're in, love to know about things they don't know anything about."
National Post Saturday, January 31, 2004