Saturday, October 24, 2015

1215 - 2015... plus ça change?

It's exactly 800 years since the fundamental principles of this realm were signed and sealed, allegedly adhered to ever since.  The two directors of Salisbury Playhouse came up with the brave & brilliant idea of celebrating this historic anniversary with The Magna Carta Plays: four short interpretations of the political resonance of that famous, largely unknown, deal between the barons and the king on behalf of the people of England. "Bold, funny, and provoking" warns the programme, and they're also by turns acerbic, absurd, puzzling, profound and sad. It's an impressive achievement: four very different takes on the impact of this ancient legislation, with some terrific political polemic ~ most strikingly in Kingmakers by writer & activist Anders Lustgarten ~ and salutary future-imaging, most chillingly in We Sell Right by Timberlake Wertenbaker. These two were my favourites but in this production the whole is greater than the sum of the quarters.  Director Gareth Machin, designer Ellan Parry, and the entire creative team deserve praise, and the multi-roleing cast are all superb.
Kingmakers uses a mix of Shakespearean verse, contemporary terms, & street slang to create a Mad-Hatters' mediaeval teapartyful of ruthless barons conniving with young Henry, King John's successor, to subdue those annoyingly restless peasants who complain "we take men's tithes and nothing give the nation." Their solution is to distract them, using a very English device still in vogue today (I've avoided a spoiler here, but 'tis true although there were some sharp intakes of breath in the stalls and 5 people quit from my row at the interval) leaving the everyman narrator to lament "Why do we do it when we know full well the rich are turds? They laugh at us from their yachts."
Sally Woodcock, writer of the second play, set Pink Gin in Africa using the analogy of Clause 47, relating to the return of appropriated land to the people, to create a story about a Disney-style forestry development. And there's another take on the continuing relevance of the charter in Ransomed by Howard Brenton: an entertaining sleuthing parody with a Sarah Lund lookalike detective, a Russian spy and a self-flagelating canon, set in the fictional city of Melchester. Below the patterned-jumper spoof there's a darker thread: who are the barons nowadays? and who will write our next charter...
We Sell Right time-travels us more than 800 years forward from the original charter into a dystopian future, creating an uneasy atmosphere of fractured communication from the start. No spoilers for this moving piece about why, in the writer's words, 'this ancient document is still very, very alive today.'
On till November 7th, recommended (by me that is, the content will make it controversial to some reviewers)

images Richard Davenport

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