Farewell to Bonfire Night, farewell to the heedless celebration of ‘gun- powder, treason and plot’. Events since 9/11 have branded us all with the grim reality of religiously inspired terrorism. Play after play now seeks to dramatise the underlying causes. Who’s to say that the theatre doesn’t stand at least as good a chance as psychologists, sociologists and the rest of the pack of casting a glimmer of light in the dark? My critical colleagues certainly felt this of Edward Kemp’s treatment of the Guy Fawkes conspiracy, 5/11, a hit at this year’s Chichester Festival, and which I’m truly sorry to have missed.
To round off its Stratford ‘Gunpowder’ season of plays contemporaneous with, but not specifically about, the events of 1605, the RSC commissioned the highly regarded Donegal playwright Frank McGuinness to tackle those events head-on. McGuinness is of course far too experienced a hand to have attempted exactly that. King James I and his spymaster Robert Cecil, Catesby, Fawkes and the conspirators are all vividly there in the costumes of the period, as are the essentials of the story. But Speaking Like Magpies is interspersed with masque-like episodes in song, and there’s a hoofed and horned figure, called the Equivocator (Kevin Harvey), who’s ever on hand to introduce the characters and tell us what they’re thinking.
Needless to say, the stream of leering confidentialities to the audience quickly turns him into a rather tedious fellow where only a wickedly amusing devil would really have served. ‘Equivocation’ may have been an important part of the Crown’s case against at least one of the conspirators, but it didn’t need banging home. Nor does McGuinness’s even- handed treatment of the conflicts burning through the play really have need of such a universally sceptical narrator.
The most arresting element in Magpies is its weirdly idiosyncratic portrayal of James I, taken with considerable flair and style by William Houston in his best role yet in the season. We first meet James as he starts out of a dream in which his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, forgives the dead Elizabeth, her vengeance being that it’s her own son who will succeed to the English throne. This comes as something of a surprise to James, whose triumphant arrival in London is marked by a charade in which a grotesque Pope and Protestant divine engage in unseemly combat for the soul of the nation, thus confronting James with the problem to which he has himself to be the solution. But McGuinness’s James is basically interested only in his own skin, concluding that neither religion can save him from death. Self-preservation emerges as the one true creed. It’s with some relief that he discovers that the only god recognised by the wily Cecil is himself, the king.
It is indeed a peculiarity of the play that McGuinness draws the teeth of faith, transmuting religion into the political struggle for survival and supremacy. Father Garnet (Fred Ridgeway), the Jesuit whom Catesby and the conspirators seek out in their wish to confess and receive absolution, is of precious little help to their faith. Like James he’s terrified of death, and totally unconsoled by the prospect of eternal paradise thereafter, which one had imagined was part and parcel of Catholicism.
The flame of deeply held religious belief flickers only fitfully. The Equivocator launches the play by inviting everyone to give him their faith, to leave it with him at the door so that there should be no impediment to the unfolding of the familiar story. It’s an ironical ploy, of course, but this instant and relentlessly topped-up injection of, well, I suppose one should say doubt and equivocation, has the effect of emasculating the drama, of side-stepping the issues of conscience and the conflicts of religious conviction which, you would have thought, were not exactly marginal in James’s reign.
On the credit side, director Rupert Goold, in his Stratford début, is working with an RSC ensemble that seizes every chance. In one genuinely chilling episode that’s not for the faint-hearted, Cecil (very well played by Nigel Cooke) calmly carves a joint of beef while interrogating an innocent maid whom he needs to incriminate Garnet. Vinette Robinson wonderfully conveys the essential innocence of the girl, her dawning horror as Cecil begins to force-feed her with morsels of rare meat dripping with blood, and finally her utter devastation when her tormentor forces her into betraying the priest who’d been her true friend.
Goold and his designer Matthew Wright come up with some pretty spectacular effects. In one of these James is hoisted up on wires high above a chanting circle of red-cowled Catholic priests. Fountains of white fireworks light up the stage. Alas, that’s more than can be said of the totality of the play itself. Its attempt to comprehend the Gunpowder Plot by ritualising its events in sharply distinctive short scenes doesn’t come off any better than McGuinness’s convoluted efforts to ironise the religious convictions that were, and remain, the heart of the problem.