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The Hollow Crown

Wimbledon News, 5th September 1975

The anti-smoking campaign got an unexpected boost at Wimbledon Theatre this week when King James I joined the ranks.

The right royal “Counterblast to Tobacco” which was written by James himself, in true rip-roaring 17th Century style, was delivered with all the gruesome conviction of the 20th Century by James Grout of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who raised several laughs and a few tell-tale coughs.

But James was just one of the many monarchs on parade in “The Hollow Crown”. A tight little jigsaw of royal sketches fitted perfectly together by five members of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The only woman in the cast was Sara Kestleman and she was splendid in all parts.

As the girlish Jane Austen she presented a potted history of the English Monarchy under the teasing title of “A Partial, Prejudiced and Ignorant Historian”.

And as novelist Fanny Burney she artfully describes a brief meeting with George III which gave her a chance to show off a marvellous talent for mimicry.

The music was provided by Adrian Harman and the old melodies went down very well with the audience.

Both Paul Hardwick and Michael Pennington gave stirring performances and with careful timing and good delivery made the most of what might have been hard going.

All the actors were dressed in a soft brown and the backdrop was a deep flame red. And with all of them seated around a coffee table enjoying the occasional sip of Meade – it was a very cosy performance.

The Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 26th March 1979, Phil Penfold

I don’t envy the task to any actress who has to play the little girl of eight one minute and an old maid the next.

A daunting task, by any standards. But I admire – immeasurably – Miss Brenda Bruce, who carried the thing off beautifully in ‘Pleasure and Repentance’, the second of the RSC’s selected group of readings on Saturday.

In fact, I admire all the actors who took part in both the anthologies of verse and prose – as well as their entire orchestra Bill Homewood.

Indeed, Mr Homewood had a few about-turns to achieve himself. Starting off as a wolf cub, he turned quite nicely into a troubadour, and also managed to squeeze in, at one point during the day, a guitar version of the national anthem.

What these programmes illustrate so neatly is the beauty of the English language – whether it be descriptive of the responsibilities of royalty – as in ‘The Hollow Crown’ – or of the stormy seas of love, as in ‘Pleasure’.

It gives us the full range of writing from the romantic to the acid-edged. And far from being a po-faced series of reading, there are some quite delightful vignettes: Jane Austen (as played by Lisa Harrow) bubbles enthusiastically for “that wonderful, tragic woman” Mary, Queen of Scots, but would have had Elizabeth I beheaded, soon as look at her.

There is also a rather revolting account, divided between Michael Pennington and Richard Griffiths, of how Edward II met his extremely unpleasant end at Berkeley Castle. Mr Pennington and Mr Griffiths sit – a la Norman Evans – like two old gossips over a garden wall, and go through every gory detail.

The pay-off line is superb. With an inflection that beggars description, Mr Griffiths observes after a pause: “He was buried at Gloucester” – as if that excused all the tribulations of that sad monarch.

It is that sort of manoeuvre that makes the RSC selections so appealing. Combine with that some delicious material (some familiar, some as fresh as paint) and you have two remarkable experiences.

John Barton devised ‘The Hollow Crown’. Terry Hands was behind ‘Pleasure and Repentance’. Both directed their own productions and both are lit with distinction by Michael Taylor, who achieves a wealth of effects without appearing to do very much at all.

That is the hardest task in all these shows – to make the difficult (a handful of actors, a modicum of set dressing) look deceptively easy. As a corporate effort, it is achieved without any fuss o bother. But it is later that one realises what superb shows these are and what influences they have on one.

As entertainment they are unsurpassed.

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