Revival is a lesson in the art of great acting

It was the late Richard Burton who said that being taken into the Welsh hills for vocal training was what gave him the ability to bounce his voice off the back of the stalls in a packed auditorium at the Old Vic. It is unlikely that Donald Sinden employed precisely those methods to cultivate his larynx - but the effect is pretty much the same.

Sinden is able, in the current production of John Barton's The Hollow Crown at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, to cut through the atmosphere with his famous megaphone of a voice at a decibel level that at times would have rivalled Regimental Sergeant Major Ron Brittain of the Coldstream Guards, the man who was once described as having the loudest voice in the British Army.

The Once and Future King

The Voice

What is extraordinary is that Sinden, despite his advancing years, has lost none of the melody of his distinctive tone. If anything, it is an even richer sound than when he was younger, even more deeply mellifluous than in the past. But Sinden, like the other performers on the stage - Richard Johnson, Alan Howard and Harriet Walter - comes from a school of acting that regarded The Voice as one of the most essential weapons in an actor's armoury. And with that vocal projection comes precise enunciation and clear diction.

The Hollow Crown, created by John Barton over 40 years ago and directed by him in this production, is a whimsical and literary look at history using the words of English kings and queens through the ages, those who knew them and those who wrote about them - either from direct experience or from a less exact position. It is, in Barton's own words, "an entertainment" and thus, by definition, a rather less than serious depiction of monarchs - from William the Conqueror to the young Queen Victoria. And we even have "King" Arthur at the end, from Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur.

The actors sit on chairs in front of a table, and get up - script in hand - when they come to speak their parts. They are at times serious, but more often comic, in delivering the lines laid in front of them. There are moments when the pace slackens, but they are few. Overall these are consummate performances by actors well practised in the craft of holding an audience's admiring attention.

Richard Johnson exudes authority, despite a very occasional minor first night fluff. Harriet Walter is wonderfully prim as a 15-year-old Jane Austen and superbly funny as the novelist Fanny Burney - full of tongue-tied embarrassment - discussing the arts over tea with George III. Alan Howard's contributions include a brilliant rendering of James I 's famous Counterblast to Tobacco. And Stephen Gray is excellent as the guitar-playing balladeer that adds a musical dimension to the proceedings.

But if there has to be a star of the show, the prize goes to Donald Sinden. The sheer force of his personality - his physical and vocal theatricality - is so commanding that it fills the stage whenever he struts upon it. His description from The Greville Memoirs of the dinners hosted by William IV is side-splittingly funny, particularly the line about the "hip-hipping" in choruses of three cheers for the king! And those famous vocal chords, showing no signs of wear, swell like trumpet blasts to fill the entire building's acoustic.

Preston Witts

The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald, 10.3.05.