Battle Royal

Princess Caroline

Princess Caroline

of Brunswick ….. Zoe Wanamaker

George,

Prince of Wales ….. Simon Russell Beale

Lady Jersey….. Gemma Jones

Colonel McMahon ….. Brendan Coyle

Mariette ….. Caroline Harker

Mr. Denman ….. William Osborne

Prince William ….. Michael Mueller

Maria Fitzherbert ….. Suzanne Burden

Lord Jersey ….. Martin Chamberlain

Lord Malmesbury ….. Hugh Ross

Mr. Brougham ….. Matthew Macfadyen

With: Patrick Godfrey, Benny Young, Valerie Spelman, Patrick Baladi, Iain Mitchell, Patrick Marlowe, Adrian Penketh, Yvonne O’Grady, Janet Spencer-Turner, Jay Simpson, Duncan Duff.

As proof that you can make a shimmeringly theatrical silk purse indeed out of the dramatic equivalent of a sow’s ear, along comes Nick Stafford’s new play “Battle Royal” to suggest that there’s no writing so trashy that a vibrant Howard Davies production can’t put right.

Will the critics scoff? Of course, since — as drama — “Battle Royal” is even coarser than its heroine, the hapless Princess Caroline of Brunswick (played by Zoe Wanamaker). But the public is likely to applaud the velocity of a production that clips along like a TV miniseries, even when the play (at nearly three-and-a-half hours) threatens to become as long as one. One can question the National’s decision to mount what is in effect a royal potboiler. But Davies, his designer Rob Howell, and a (mostly) top-drawer ensemble rise to the occasion like ace students determined to make the best of a dreary assignment: London hasn’t seen so tantalizing an exercise in theatrical camouflage in years.

The extensive dumb show preceding the first lines of dialogue makes clear from the outset that Davies is going to have his way with a play that wants to be a companion piece — eight years later — to Alan Bennett’s “The Madness of George III” but comes across, instead, as a very poor cousin, indeed. In that earlier play, you’ll remember, the mad Hanoverian king was succumbing to a touch of the Lears, leaving his bloated son, the Prince of Wales and eventual monarch, trapped for 26 years in a marriage to a German woman he couldn’t abide.

“Battle Royal” picks up the story with the arrival of Princess Caroline into a hostile England, where she is met by a husband (Simon Russell Beale’s soon-to-be George IV) who conceals his distaste rather less well than he has hid the fact of his earlier — and illicit — marriage to a Catholic widow, Mrs. Fitzherbert (Suzanne Burden). While George talks ominously of “mother,” sounding as if he hadstepped out of an aristocrat equivalent of “Psycho,” Caroline does her damnedest to hold her own amid a court inimical to her every move and sound except where it matters most — the people.

“Is the Princess of Wales a state prisoner?” blares one of the newspaper headlines of the day, while another bears testimony to “the lost princess.” It doesn’t take long before you are leaping forward two centuries and substituting names like Charles, Diana and Dodi for George, Caroline and the onetime Italian soldier, Bartolomeo Pergami (Duncan Duff), with whom Caroline had a notorious dalliance abroad. That particular liaison led to an English summons before the House of Lords, while the rabble rallied around her. But the support of the public couldn’t forestall the cruel workings of fate: Way back then, the Princess also died well before time.

It will hardly surprise you to know that “Battle Royal” builds towards its own lachrymose deathbed scene, though Wanamaker (Broadway’s recent Electra) handles that, too, with aplomb. The happy surprise is the utter credibility and conviction that have been collectively pressed into service on the play, starting with a heroine who shifts over the course of the action from devilish scamp to aggrieved also-ran without the actress once losing her grip on a commendably Teutonic accent. Or succumbing to camp.

Russell Beale, to be sure, has the easier part: Growling flamboyantly, “I was the heir and now I’m the king,” he offers a throwback to earlier acting days when he seemed to play nothing but fops. But there aren’t too many performers who could get a laugh by merely noting the location of south London’s Blackheath (“It’s over there,” the Prince says dryly, waving a disinterested hand), even as he takes instruction from an adviser, Colonel McMahon (a miscast Brendan Coyle, late of “The Weir”), who stalks the stage supplying his own Nixon-style enemies’ list.

In writing terms, does it add up? Hardly a jot, especially since Stafford rarely expands the intrinsically heady narrative to grab at any larger themes, unless one considers a sensationalistic appeal to today’s tabloid readership to be a sign of depth. But with Howell’s ever-propulsive sets, all pillars and lush fabric, driving the fine cast forward — Gemma Jones contributes her own elegant luster as a more-than-friend to the future king — “Battle Royal” puts a fact-based spin on the workings of pulp fiction. This is a small play given a large production, and for once, more is more.

Battle Royal

(ROYAL NATIONAL THEATER/LYTTELTON; 898 SEATS; $:29 ($ 47.50) TOP)

Production: LONDON A Royal National Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Nick Stafford. Directed by Howard Davies. Sets and costumes, Rob Howell.

Crew: Lighting, Mark Henderson; music, Paddy Cunneen; sound, Adam Rudd; movement, Jane Gibson. Opened, reviewed Dec. 9, 1999. Running time: 3 HOURS, 20 MIN.

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