Crowning glory of historical treasures

Verdict: stirring anthology of English history


Finding itself with a hole in its schedule, the Royal Shakespeare Company has revived a historical 'entertainment' from 1960. A night about the kings and queens of England, with poems, courtiers' letters and the occasional song, it is wildly old-fashioned - and utterly marvellous.

The Hollow Crown is not a play. It is an anthology about the people who have fought and plotted to wear the Crown of England, plus a few who inherited it in balmier circumstances.

The climax, for instance, is the gloriously funny diary entry by the young Queen Victoria about her Coronation day, and how dear old Lord Melbourne kept nearly blubbing throughout the ceremony. How lucky Victoria was to have an avuncular Home Secretary. We could do with a Melbourne today.

A randy letter of proposal from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn is contrasted, immediately, with poor Anne's letter from the Tower shortly before her execution. We hear James I's Counterblast To Tobacco, his Scots disapproval making him a 17th-century John Reid.

Diarist Fanny Burney's awkward tea with George III is another classic. So is a memo sent 500 years ago by Henry VII seeking details about his putative bride, the Queen of Naples. Did she have good boobs? A moustache? Squashed nose? The ambassador, in reply, was the master of diplomacy. xxxxxxxxxxxx The readings are performed, beautifully, by Harriet Walter, Alan Howard, Richard Johnson and old rasper himself, Sir Donald Sinden. Lopping a couple of slower passages from the first half would make the evening perfect.

This production celebrates the sort of history that educationalists no longer want our children to be taught. It shows that the Crown has been worn down the centuries by eccentrics, egomaniacs, depressives, sadists, bumblers, peacocks, loonies and even the occasional clement Christian. Fate assails our monarchy as the sea tempest a granite foreland, but in time the waves abate and the rock survives.

Parents and grandparents, be quick. This gem runs for only a fortnight, so hurry - unless the RSC can be persuaded to give it a longer run later in the year.

The Daily Mail, 11.3.05.