The octogenarian playwright’s subtitle, “A True History That Never Happened,” announces the artistic licence (and in some ways similar to Anthony Burgess’ On Mozart: A Paean for Wolfgang) that will bring together King Charles II (Benedict Campbell carries the show with pomp and perception), founder of the Quakers, George Fox (Ric Reid makes the most of the friend-of-all role), James, Duke of York (Andrew Bunker truly wrestles with the truth), portrait artist Godfrey Kneller (Ken James Stewart) and three of Charles’ “leading” ladies (Nicola Correia-Damude as actor Nell Gwynn, Barbara Villiers playing the Duchess of Cleveland and Lisa Codrington who convincingly takes on the role of Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth) into the library of philosopher Isaac Newton (Graeme Somerville, appropriately bewildered, baffled and bedevilled) in 1860. Serving as announcer/usher is Sally (Esther Maloney), but the master of the Cambridge house is most certainly Mrs. Basham (Mary Haney, ideal as the protective, prideful housekeeper).
Newton: And at bottom I know no more about gravitation than you do about beauty.
More than any other line, these few words deftly make Shaw’s point. During the very long first act, the “kings” of science, art, politics and religion are all revealed to be mere mortals, struggling to maintain their privilege and place in the world. The servants provide moments of levity and down-to-earth reality (there’s only one piece of cod to go around at the unexpected luncheon), while the women vie for the attention, pleasure and power of he who’d like to be obeyed.
Kneller: … no living man or woman can endure his or her portrait if it tells all the truth about them.
So many of Shaw’s plays could well be those portraits—unapologetically framing the injustices of Church and State as he understands them—that it’s soon clear this late work is a truly marvellous summation of his long-held views. What fun to have them uttered aloud by such an array of “important” persons!
Eda Holmes has crafted a fascinating production which, like many fine wines, needs time to digest and reflect upon. Because of the unusual structure, the first act is interrupted during the rolling fight between the Galileo-defending Newton and Catholic-to-the-core Duke of York. All of this is meant to set up the long dialogue between the protestant king and his Pope-loving, impatient heir, but the previous momentum can’t be sustained once the audience returns to their places. Better to have risked the “heavenly” length and keep the action going.
Following the second break, the magic begins. During the performance the cheetah-lit, ballet of beauties (circling a dreamy King Charles, now safely back home in Newmarket), seemed a bit trite as the link from the “true history” to the closing act whose only other “living” character is Queen Catherine of Bragança (Laurie Paton does a magnificent job portraying the forever-foreign—Portuguese—wife of the wayward monarch). In the few pages left to them, most of the time is spent honestly assessing past dalliances and looking towards life after the 50-year-old ruler’s inevitable death.
Later, after further contemplation, it’s discovered that their passionate honesty lingers wonderfully in the mind, allowing the curiously-satisfying thought that all which preceded wasn’t “history” but a dream for the ages, where the rich, famous and powerful—in one way or another—come to the difficult (for their collective egos) conclusion that they, too, are mere mortals.
In Holmes’ skillful hands, Shaw’s subliminal message finally surfaces stronger than any amount of preaching or pontificating could (but make no mistake, there’s plenty of both in the script): golden days indeed for the unrepentant writer and his, once again, enlightened audience. JWR