The Hollow Crown by John Barton. Directed by Jonathan Epstein.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Corinna May, Nigel Gore, Annette Miller, Jason Asprey, Kristen Wold; photo: Kevin Sprague
"I parcel my powers..."
In 1961 the academic John Barton joined the newly created Royal Shakespeare Company to devise an entertainment he would call "The Hollow Crown." The play, originally intended for a quartet of actors (one a woman), chronicled the human beings who happened to be the Kings and Queens of England and their relationships. Parents, wives, ministers, advisors, lovers and mistresses each have their say in the course of the piece and the sources range from the sublime to the ridiculous. The resultant stage work has hardly ever been off the stage somewhere in the world ever since. Currently it is being performed at Shakespeare & Companyís Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre by the same company of actors who are appearing in "The Memory of Water" by Shelagh Stephenson.
Pick a monarch from Arthur through Victoria and youíll probably hit on a moment in this show. Done as a staged concert reading, its normal presentation style, it is as engaging a history lesson as you are ever likely to have in your lifetime. Never tedious, often funny, sometimes touching, genuinely inventive, this production brings to life momentarily some of the most intriguing people in the British monarchy.
Henry the Eighth and Anne Boleyn are here. Mary Tudor puts in an appearance. Charles the First stands trial and argues his rightful position with his accusers. William the Conqueror shares the stage with half a dozen royal mistresses. A fifteen year old Jane Austen writes her own, very special and personal, "Partial, Prejudiced and Ignorant History of England." Shakespeareís words share the same stage with Austenís and with the Holingshead Chronicles that inspired his own plays. The mix is almost ideal, practically perfect. In two hours you get more information in a most entertaining way than you are ever likely to receive anywhere ever again.
The company consists of Nigel Gore, Corinna May, Kristin Wold, Annette Miller and Jason Asprey. The men are in black tie, the women in gorgeous evening gowns (lusciously created by Govane Lohbauer). The seem to float through a set comprised of a mixed bag of theatrical memorabilia (designed by Patrick Brennan) and lighting designer Stephen Ball helps them to appear and disappear at will.
On stage with the actors is music director Bill Barclay who accompanies scenes and does transitions and who, with mandolin or guitar or squeezebox, manages to bring historic song into the mix. While the songs add a measure of fun to the work, they do point up the sad fact that there are NO singers in this group of actors. Still itís fun to watch them make a stab at song.
Miller is the best of the women in this group, morphing into and out of her characters with alacrity. At one point in the second act she actually seems to alter the shape of her head. She also wears a gown that defies description, her arms seemingly attached to her fanny.
Gore is the better of the men, devising voices and accents that bring his characters to vivid life. Asprey often seemed a bit at sea, loosely marginal in his page turns and readings, sometimes mis-reading a word, a phrase, and reacting to his own errors poorly.
May is lush and lovely and, like Miller, manages to become each of her characters briefly but thoroughly. She has wonderful moments as the newly wed Portuguese princess and the vaguely interested Elinor of Aquitaine. Wold does a lovely job as Jane Austen and Anne Boleyn.
Throughout the company retains a very modern sense, although they do seem to be centered in the era of this playís creation, the 1960s. It is altogether a tribute to the vision of their director, Jonathen Epstein, that this over-riding concept works so well. It is unlikely that a show like this one will make another appearance in the near future so I would hie me over to the Lenox-based property and take advantage of the opportunity to witness something different and new for this region, a history lesson like no other in a play like none other. What else can I say!
A Hollow Crown runs in repertory at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA through July 24. There arenít many opportunities to see this, so check their website at www.shakespeare.org for schedules and call the box office at 413-637-3353 quickly.