It seems fitting that on the day the founder of the RSC and great innovator Sir Peter Hall exits our world pursued by love and homage, a challenging and brave piece of theatre opens at The Other Place.
Kingdom Come is part of the ongoing Making Mischief festival and is a devised work, meaning that it has been conceived by directors Gemma Brockis and Wendy Hubbard and also largely created in the rehearsal room with the six (brilliant) actors and the rest of the creative team.
The play starts in 1640, the dawn of the Civil War. On the streets there is unrest, mobs roam hungry and frustrated, Parliament is rebellious, the chaos of impending war breaks down social order… But never mind all that, we the audience join the action inside an opulent theatre — a dazzling crushed gold backdrop and velvet drape-clad proscenium stage, with suitably regal classical brass tunes parping out (designer Charlotte Espiner and composer/sound designer Melanie Wilson are on their game throughout the production).
We are at a courtly masque, the view from our comfy seats is rather jolly: as the performers present a tableaux of amusing characters ( ‘Scottish man smoking a pipe’ et al) Madeleine Worrall as the narrator provides a seductive and wry commentary — it is funny and surreal.
But there is a switch. Proceedings turn disconcerting when a metallic masque-wearing King Charles I, flanked by two courtiers, assumes centre stage and does an agonisingly slow walk towards us as surtitles flash down on the floor charting the onset and progress of the war in illuminated letters. It is menacing, harrowing, shocking, brilliant.
In 1642 the Puritans closed the theatres, and so, true to life, in the second part of the play we are shunted out of our seats and comfort zones as we are herded into a scene dock area out of normal view. At the end of the long room is scaffolding where the king awaits beheading by a beefy executioner. There’s a mood of puzzlement and fright as we await the protracted execution. Lucy Ellinson (oh those gloriously big expressive eyes) rants; while a lithe Solomon Israel wearing a Medusa-like headdress messes with the crowd, teasing and poking.
Nigel Barrett as the fated king fusses overlong with his clothes and the position of his head on the block… so much so that you find yourself willing axe dude to get on with chopping his head off. And then it hits you: we are the baying mob, the scared and bloodthirsty citizens of mid-17th century Britain.
Or are we? As Kingdom Come moves into the final third part, and we shuffle back into our seats in a now derelict, graffiti-scrawled theatre, clarity does not seem high on the company’s agenda. A drunk couple bitch about Cromwell; a theatre company act out snatches from Twelfth Night, seemingly despairing of the drama’s ability to speak to the times; an actor gets beaten up by the Puritans. One of the most affecting scenes comes as a soldier (Barrett) recounts the terrible slaughter and inhumanity he has witnessed (the bashing out of brains, and slaughtered naked bodies) as he cleans his sword and breaks down.
The play culminates in a series of vignettes where the actors pose as if captured in a painting by an old Dutch master; rich half light conjures the majesty of a maid at the washtub, louche diners at a meal and Cavaliers laughing over a drink.
The scenes look and sound great, and you can feel the profundity, but can’t quite seem to grasp its inner meaning. Like the rest of Kingdom Come it rests in a no-man’s land between enigmatic, perplexing and provocative… The man who introduced the country to Waiting for Godot in 1955 would surely have approved.
Kingdom Come is on at The Other Place until 30th September. Book tickets at www.rsc.org.uk