The Magna Carta Plays
Four one act plays
Directed by Gareth Machin
Saturday 31st October 2015, 2.15 matinee
Salisbury Playhouse commissioned these four short plays for the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. The best existing 1215 copy of the charter resides in Salisbury Cathedral. The overall concept sounded great, then they had to find the plays. A friend took me to task recently for awarding too many 4 and 5 stars in recent reviews. I’d defend it on the grounds that we choose very carefully what to go and see, and we’re good at guessing what will be excellent. However, as he’ll be pleased to hear, this is a change …
Earl Grabber- Tim Frances
Duke Venal – Trevor Michael Georges
Lady Plunder – Juliet Howland
Sprocket – Mark Meadows
Lord Lamphrey – Michael Mears
King Henry III – Ben Scott
Shakespeare managed to get through King John missing the two 1066 And All That / Horrible Histories events: the Magna Carta and losing the crown jewels in the wash. Or rather The Wash. This is the only play set in the era, though actually ten years later, in 1225, when the Magna Carta was reissued (Digitally remastered with bonus tracks?), so it has to be the opener. Poor old King John is gone too, as this features his son Henry III. He reissued the Magna Carta in exchange for a grant of new taxes. He was only eighteen, and had already been king for nine years, meaning that great barons were competing to run (or ruin) the country, as they did throughout his reign, which was confused and unstable. Fortunately Shakespeare ignored him, perhaps seven plays with “Henry” in the title was quite enough.
Like Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III this is done in verse, probably inspired by Bartlett’s success too. It’s cod-Shakesperean, according to Anders Lustgarten in the programme. First problem. Mike Bartlett can write mock-Shakespeare in a modern context with consummate ease. Mr Lustgarten cannot. The style is pantomime, but as a connoisseur of pantomime writing, this playwright sounds as if he’s consciously “slumming it.” It’s introduced by Sprocket (a Buttons role), and the three barons and one baroness are carousing noisily at the table with loud 21st century dance music. They freeze while Sprocket speaks … a long and pretty hard freeze too, and well-executed. When Henry III (Ben Scott) appears he’s a would be club-DJ speaking in street-talk, or sub Ali-G. Crude pastiche. Student skit. No more.
Ben Scott as Henry III
The trouble is that trite clichés follow trite clichés. Just look at the names: Grabber, Venal, Plunder. If you want funny cod-Shakespeare, call them Essex, Wessex, Sussex and Middlesex and keep confusing them. If you want to beat a “Corbyn Labour 2015” drum relentlessly (and Lustgarten really does rely on the left’s mantras) then call them Cornwall, Cambridge, York and Wessex. (Geddit?) Lustgarten describes himself as a “political activist and playwright.” I see. I had guessed the priority. It’s heavy-handed, obvious. Some playwrights can write ‘fuck’ with aplomb. Both times Lustgarten forced it in you could hear the quotation marks hovering, as when Lady Plunder says ‘Fuck me. English is hard,’ and when another baron says “Fuck all.” Both sounded written in bold, italic, underlined twice and in quotes. One of the failed pantomime bits has Lady Plunder say “You nasty man!” in very put-on RP, then pretend to knee the nasty man in the bollocks, but missing by two feet while he doubles up. You can only write the line with irony, and if you really have to, then at least rehearse the knee in the bollocks sufficiently to get a laugh. It didn’t.
Henry III’s big idea is to have a royal wedding to please the populace. The Royal Family are “hapless twats” in this text. Not the first time they get knocked this afternoon.
Forced verse. Pantomime style with no true affinity with the form from the writing. It carries over to the acting style, but then there isn’t the directorial nerve to really go with it and bring the audience in. There’s no “Behind you!” A woeful effort. A pity, Mark Meadows as Sprocket was clearly capable of handling audience reaction … a major skill.
I was thinking that the two star reviews in The Times and Telegraph were generous. Little did I know that this was, in spite of my moans above, the best, or least bad, of the four plays.
They linked the two plays with a song … Ben Scott again … about William Rufus and the New Forest (a far better story than the play here). I was wishing for Sir Walter Tyrell’s prowess with a bow and arrow actually.
President – Trevor Michael Georges
Angelica / Old woman – Vivienne Rochester
Jasper, a white farmer- Tim Frances
The President and Angelica
So I hadn’t thought Kingmakers very good. But it towered over Pink Gin. This was simply the worst thing I have seen on a stage since Calixto Bieto’s Forests in 2012. To be fair it didn’t descend nearly as far as the depths of Forests because there was no forced-in and unpleasant sexual dimension. But it was still a misguided work.
It’s about an African dictator (Trevor Michael Georges) who wants to open a theme park. Africa Spectacula (sic). He is partial to pink gin: Plymouth gin with Angostura bitters. His assistant, Angelica, has been switching the bitters around (I think) with some medicine from an old woman with 60 years growth of hair who wants to save the forest from the theme park. You work that out later, but the dictator dissolves into Tourettes syndrome in Latin, with violent physical jerks, not that you could follow the Latin what with the jerks and African accent.
Then a white farmer appears in shorts, tie and suit jacket. They argue a bit. The farmer gets Tourettes in Latin too. Angelica appears as the old woman with five metres of hair. The farmer shoots her. As you would. The dictator drapes over her body.
It’s all about vile capitalism invading the forest, and based on The Forest Charter of 1217, following on from Magna Carta. However, having read The Guardian the day before on the effect of deliberate forest fires in Indonesia, dwarfing all our attempts to reduce carbon emissions in the West, it seemed to me that a large Disney Safari Park was a most benign alternative … protecting animals and creating employment. Still the old medicine woman in the forest didn’t like it.
The play was abysmal. I applaud the energy and effort Trevor Michael Georges put into a difficult physical part. Really excellent performance of a really dud play.
Had there been four works all by the same writer, we would have left in the interval. How I wish we had! But optimism made me hope, four different writers, maybe it’ll look up.
Yuri- Tim Frances
Caroline Montfichet – Juliet Howland
Mrs Maddeley Coach – Frances Jeates
Roger Sylvester – Mark Meadows
Canon Simon St John – Michael Mears
PC Harold Budd – Ben Stott
Detective Inspector Ellie Baxter- Joanna Van Kampen
Yuri the Oligarch, Sloane girlfriend behind
This according to reviews was the promising one. Howard Brenton is the most experienced writer here. What he gave us was a run-of-the-mill TV crime story … well nowhere near that good. We had a female police inspector dressed in the obligatory The Killing Danish knitwear and jeans. OK, a police inspector … I know! She’ll have a dumb police constable along. I haven’t seen that before. The programme says Howard Brenton is writing a prequel about the character. D.I. Ellie Baxter. Joanne Van Kampen certainly has instant strong stage presence in the role. But what a really bad decision it was to put that Danish sweater on her. It undermines her originality and turns the role into pastiche. The parts are all stereotypes, but all are well-performed.
The plot. The Magna Carta gets stolen from Melchester Cathedral while the canon is self-flagellating as in The Da Vinci Code. Sarah Lund arrives with the constable. Sorry, Sarah Lund imitation arrives. Her ex-lover is Secret Service and he rolls up too. A Russian oligarch had stolen the Magna Carta with the intent of swapping it for a British passport. He has a Sloane Ranger girlfriend. We realise the Secret Intelligence Service runs the country. It all goes wrong. Yuri the Russian destroys it, but as the canon says, it’s written on our hearts. Ah, bless!
I’ve probably made it sound more fascinating than it was. Melchester is the fictional home of Melchester Rovers, the team Roy of the Rovers played for in the kids’ comics. Why not Salisbury? Maybe the self-flagellating canon was a problem.
The Russian oligarchs bullying their way around rang bells. A couple of years ago we were on the top deck of a spotlessly clean early morning London bus. A large thug with a skinny cowering girlfriend next to him was shouting into a phone in Russian, while swigging Special Brew. He then crushed the can and threw it the length of the top deck, dribbling lager the whole way, and opened another. I mentioned him to some Russian teachers … “Oligarch’s bodyguard” they said. That was my guess too.
It was watchable. Not good, but it had a storyline.
We Sell Right
Older woman – Frances Jeater
Older woman – Vivienne Rochester
Girl – Joanna Van Kampen
This on the other hand was unwatchable, not that there was anything to watch. Look at the characterisation in those role names. Let me retract what I said about Pink Gin above. That was at least lively with a powerful performance. This was plain dull. This is the worst I’ve seen since Forests. Pink Gin will have to be content with second-worse. The trouble is that they decided that chronology should dictate the running order of the plays. So past, present, present, future. But this future one was the weakest of the four. I’d have put it after the interval (before would have left too many empty seats in the second half) and finished with the Brenton, or the Lustgarten. Probably the Lustgarten as at least it had costume, action and music.
Three women in a “sanctuary” in the future bemoan how everything has been sold: museums, art galleries, cabbages, cuddly toys, words, concepts, life, the universe, everything. Words flash on a screen. There is absolutely nothing to look at otherwise. The girl is holding “the book”. Maybe that’s got some words in it. Who knows? Who cares? “Just justice” and right might survive. Or not. It’s again, appallingly trite and screamingly obvious. I have never used that Americanism “sophomoric” in a review until now. Now I have. There was nothing here that you couldn’t do on the radio. Zero visual or theatrical appeal. Mind you, it would be deadly dull on radio too, but at least you could do something else when you were listening. Cut your toenails perhaps. That would be more exciting.
MY OVERALL RATING FOR THE FOUR: One star (probably 2 x 2 star, 2 x zero).
THE TIMES (Kate Malby) – 2 stars
DAILY TELEGRAPH (Domenic Cavendish) – 2 stars
THE GUARDIAN (Michael Billington) – 3 stars
THE INDEPENDENT (Paul Taylor) – 4 stars
I notice that the theatre’s last week email publicity only quotes the Independent‘s 4-star rating, plus one from a local newspaper.
Kate Maltby in The Times 2-star review called it a series of Corbynite skits on modern robber barons (Russian oligarchs and British bankers). She has a shot at being immortalized in the Oxford English Dictionary, as an early user of Corbynite. The triteness running through all four is summed up by “Corbynite” I think.
Domenic Cavendish in The Telegraph called it an unedifying mishmash. He adds on Kingmakers that one soon tires of its studenty digs. He finishes: Alas the only thing this well-intentioned show is likely to stir, overall, is a stampede to the car-park.
I’m always interested when the review range is wide, as here. It’s a tribute to Salisbury as a first-rate original producing theatre that the major reviewers visit their original productions. The same director did a superb Separate Tables and a superb Little Shop of Horrors. However, having seen the Kenneth Branagh Company, the Michael Grandage Company and the Young Vic company in the last fortnight … this particular production was hopelessly outclassed in all departments. Salisbury has easily held its own with the majors in the past, but surprisingly not here. At the bottom of it was that not one of these plays was worth doing. I’ll be amazed if any ever get done again. Thinking back, The Spire was a dullish play too. Perhaps they should forget “Salisbury” as an inspiration for productions.
Maybe that’s the issue with commissioning. You have a good idea. You ask four playwrights who interest you. You admire them so you’ll take whatever they give you, or maybe it was even set up so you have to take them. Then you get four poor plays. The same happened even to the great Michael Grandage with the commissioned Peter & Alice.
On the plus side Branagh’s The Winter’s Tale and Harlequinade last week cost SIX TIMES as much as this, and Salisbury is a vastly more comfortable theatre in every way.