The Hollow Crown was initially conceived in 1960 as a one-off event, an evening of readings written by and about the kings and queens of England. Led by a cast of three men and one woman, plus a musician who added period songs, this "entertainment" (devised then and directed then and now by the RSC's indomitable John Barton) quickly became a full-blown stage production and has returned with regularity over the past forty years. Vanessa Redgrave, Donald Sinden, Ian Richardson and Alan Howard are currently playing in it in Toronto at the Princess of Wales Theatre until February 29.
It's a bit bewildering, frankly, to sit through two-and-a-half hours of British monarchist history told through letters, diaries and other researched material without feeling that a test or, at the very least, a lightning round of Trivial Pursuit is bound to follow. And there are many moments when it's hard not to wander to thoughts of how little there is available in touring productions if this is what gets to take over the majestic Princess of Wales for such a long stint. But at the same time, it 's a genuine privilege to see these actors on stage without scenic designs or other distractions to separate them from us. The serious disappointment is that the vehicle bringing them here is so terribly out of date and so painfully uninteresting.
The evening begins with Richardson quoting from Shakespeare. His skill is nothing less than masterful, an exhibition of understated clarity that would inspire any acting student or working actor, anywhere. But this is followed by readings about kings from William I to Henry IV, a collage that fails to strike a single emotional reaction. And I do not fault the performers for this failure.
This section is followed by the next highlight, Redgrave's reading by a 15-year old Jane Austen. Played with fierce energy and warmth, the novelist's take on monarchs from Henry IV to Charles I is irreverent, buoyant and imbued with the arrogance of youth that sets it apart from the other writings that cannot cover the whiff of mould about them.
Sinden and Redgrave raise the emotional stakes again when they read letters written by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. The circumstance of this correspondence carries dramatic weight, which is a welcome change from much of Barton's collage, and the actors savour the rare opportunity they have to play with each other rather than directing everything to the audience.
It is not until the second act when Richardson hits the evening's most powerful notes. He plays both Charles I and Charles II, the first addressing the court that subsequently executed him (and in this scene reminding us of his power as Marat in the fabled Brook production of the mid-60's) and the second addressing his government with a flourish and arrogance. Back-to-back, these provided us with another illustration of Richardson's consummate abilities.
After this scene it was a long haul to the final sequence from Morte d'Arthur.
There was a qualified standing ovation at the end. And there were also many empty seats after the intermission. Still, I am no less satisfied having seen these remarkable actors, but imagine how glorious it might have been without the encumbrances of a decrepit warhorse.
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