Kingdom Come review – RSC's playful glimpse at England's theatre of power

Gemma Brockis and Wendy Hubbard’s ambitious production is set during the English civil war and the interregnum that followed. It’s told by a troupe of the king’s actors who are blown hither and thither by changing times. This is a show about show: what is monarchy but a form of theatre with its protagonists lavishly costumed up?

Initially we find ourselves in a chocolate-box theatre with the king as a gold-masked god at the centre of an Inigo Jones-style court masque. We watch like respectful courtiers from afar. But then it’s out of our seats and we are ushered backstage, where Charles II is meeting his end. As the trappings of kingship are removed in preparation for his execution, he becomes a vulnerable man, like any other. We stand, a silent mob. He may be the focus, but we hold the power. At least for now.

When we return to the main auditorium after the king’s execution, the lavish mock theatre has been replaced by a graffiti-splattered wall. It soon becomes clear that puritan rule is trampling on both political and creative freedoms. The people are no closer to power.

Ambitious … Kingdom Come. Photograph: Hugo Glendinning

As Melanie Wilson’s superb sound design evokes warning bells or sirens, Kingdom Come embraces the radicalism of the Levellers and the real possibilities for change that were lost in the mid-17th century. It unfolds like a series of tableaux of history paintings by old masters, with the detail and the perspective always shifting.

This dense, playful evening is at times like one of Howard Barker’s history plays and also recalls the immersive work of the Shunt Collective (of which Brockis was a member), though it’s done on a far bigger budget. It is not always entirely digestible, but is performed with real grit and commitment by a remarkable cast who tell of a nation divided and how when people try to take back power it so often slips through their fingers.

A show that lightly points at the parallels between then and now, it could hardly have premiered in a more pertinent week, as the Brexit bill was passed in the Commons in what the prime minister called a “historic decision to back the will of the British people” – but which potentially gives ministers sovereignty over the parliament elected by the people.

  • At the Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 30 September. Box office: 01789 403493.

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