Crowning glory

Historically entertaining and superbly acted

While it is fair to say that staging The Hollow Crown in the Princess of Wales Theatre is a little like putting a butterfly on display in an airplane hangar, one is still forced to conclude: Some hangar! Some butterfly.

As hangars go, they don't get much more posh than the POW, built, you may recall, to accommodate the demands of Miss Saigon -- a mega-musical built around a show-stopping recreation of an actual helicopter landing.

Since then, the theatre has played host to equally lavish and opulent shows like Beauty And The Beast, Chicago and, most recently, The Lion King, all seemingly tailor-made to fill the massive house to its outer reaches.

The Hollow Crown, for its part, is pretty much the antithesis of the word 'mega.'

Instead, it's an intimate series of readings by four actors and a single self-accompanied singer that covers off on 800 years of British monarchy and still puts you back on the street in less than three hours.

But if, in fact, The Hollow Crown is a theatrical butterfly -- and it certainly flits through British history like one, touching down to sip for mere moments on a reign that may have spanned decades before flying off again -- then it is a Monarch butterfly, and not just by virtue of its subject matter.

To bring life to the historical devisings of John Barton, (who not only compiled this work more than four decades ago, but continues to direct it as well) the Royal Shakespeare Company offers up a cast fairly brimming with theatrical royalty of the British stage -- Vanessa Redgrave, Donald Sinden, Ian Richardson and Alan Howard.

Seemingly costumed for an up-scale cocktail party and accompanied by singer/musician Stephen Gray, this illustrious quartet takes to a stage simply dressed with five chairs, a table and a lectern, backed by an oversized folding screen.

Richardson launches the evening, reading the passage of Shakespeare's Richard II from which the evening borrows its name. From there, it's off on a romp through the family tree, starting with the recounting of the deaths of William I (also known as The Conqueror) and his successors from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and ending with an excerpt from a young Queen Victoria's diary, recalling her coronation.

In between, it lights on, amongst others: Sinden as a rampant Henry VIII in a letter to a chaste Anne Boleyn; Redgrave as a 15-year-old Jane Austen romping through 250 years of history to extol the virtues of Mary, Queen of Scots; Richardson as Charles I confronting his accusers; and Howard as a functionary to the court of Henry VII.

It is, admittedly a trifle jarring, at first, to hear voices so superbly trained in and by the language of Shakespeare, electronically amplified as though about to belt out a ditty by Elton John -- but it passes.

It's an evening that offers up a little bit of history, a whole lot of entertainment and the sheer delight of watching five consummate professionals perform at the peak of their craft.

And it goes without saying, that if you're going to indulge in butterfly watching in an airplane hangar, the closer you are to the butterfly, the more you're likely to see.

John Coulbourn

Toronto Sun, Toronto, Saturday, January 31, 2004


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