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March 15, 2005

The Hollow Crown - RSC at Stratford-upon-Avon

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

The Hollow Crown
Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
3rd - 19th March 2005

The Hollow Crown began its life as "a one-off divertissement" for the 1960 Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival, and has now turned into a tourist staple and a showcase for the Company's veteran thespians. The current players are as dazzling as one might hope: Alan Howard, Richard Johnson, Harriet Walter and Donald Sinden, with Stephen Gray contributing songs on the guitar. The production is casual, with the performers in modern dress, but hamming it up to the eyeballs magnificent! Donald Sinden, being what the French call a son et lumiere is unique. That fruity voice conjures up everything in the English theatrical culture of the century. With a fluttering of the lips and the slightest wiggle of the hips, he can convey the lust of the Tudors unforgettably. Harriet Walter brings the same mastery to the prissiness of Jane Austin's fifteen-year old convictions about Mary Queen of Scots as she does to Victoria on her coronation day.

The title phrase comes, of course, from Richard II as he recognises that he has lost the political game and plunged from royal majesty to helpless nonentity, the very kind of peripateia that makes unforgettable theatre. Antic death keeps his court within the hollow crown, grinning at pomp! That speech begins the performance, but then we leave Shakespeare behind and plunge into chronicles, reports and utterances of the kings and queens themselves. It is hardly surprising that the mediaeval and Tudor period come off best. The Anglo-Saxon Chroniclers are frankly hostile to the Normans, and there is a decently brutal account of the end of Edward II. A bawdy ballad brings in Eleanor of Aquitaine. A song in praise of Agincourt reminds us that Henry V was a composer as well as a warrior.

It was the Tudors who really had something to say for themselves, and Howard and Johnson make a splendid turn of Henry VII demanding from his ambassador the salacious details that might make the Queen of Naples a suitable marriage partner. The correspondence between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in the Tower dramatises the hypocrisies that cannot be avoided when love and statecraft clash. There's not much Elizabeth I, and her Tilbury speech is no doubt left out because The Hollow Crown is concerned less with patriotic pageantry than with the often remarkably human elements that must be transcended by the majesty of monarchy.

The high point of the Stuarts is the advice James I tenderly but robustly gave to his subjects on the evils of tobacco, a piece that makes all modern attacks on smoking look wimpish. Charles I refuses to recognise the Court at his trial for treason in 1648. The material from the Stuart kings is rather less lively, even when it is Halifax sketching the King's character, but there's a splendid rendition of the Vicar of Bray from Stephen Gray. Poor Fanny Burney meets, and fails to connect up with George III. The best material on the Hanoverians comes in expressions of hatred or disdain - until we arrive at Victoria's marvellous recollection in her diary of her coronation. She is eighteen, and deeply impressed, but not in the least awed by the occasion, partly because she is buoyed up by her admiring Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, forever with a loyal tear in his eyes.

The epilogue on Arthur as the Once and Future King the passage from Malory in which the dying king instructs Sir Bedevere to hurl Excalibur into the lake goes to the heart of what is striking about this essay in monarchy. A monarch is the grandest kind of personage we can encounter, but monarchs are also human indeed, often all too human. As Montaigne put it, however high upon a throne a king may sit, he does but sit upon his own behind. The difficult essence of monarchy consists in holding together the majesty, the humanity and the metaphorical representation of a historical community in one complex image. The Hollow Crown contributes to this understanding.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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