Theater, Winston Churchill’s youngest daughter once opined, is rather like going to church: The more you bring to it, the more you get out of it. To get much out of Howard Davies’ production of Howard Brenton’s “55 Days,” you need to bring a thorough understanding of British 17th century religious and political history. If, at the very least, the appearance of King Charles I (Mark Gatiss) doesn’t remind you that he will shortly be executed by Oliver Cromwell (gleamingly zealous Douglas Henshall), you will be at a loss.
As expected in a play about the climax of the English Civil War by as experienced and politicized a dramatist as Brenton, there are intellectual propositions aplenty. These are brought to life in the second act that finally manages to present legible action and its consequences. Prior to this, however, the lengthy first act laboriously introduces a host of key characters, all of whom do little but expound their position in passages of woefully leaden exposition.
Across a two-month struggle, Cromwell, member of Parliament and lieutenant-general of the army, rises to power against the king and leads the campaign to put him on trial for crimes against his people. Not only is such a move unprecedented, it is, in the eyes of the divinely appointed King Charles, absurd, illegal and impossible.
In the second act, Charles’ refusal to recognize the transformation of Parliament into a court raises any number of fascinating questions about individual vs. collective authority, the balance of power between people and their ruler. And Charles’s lofty defiance toward his Parliament (handled with supremely high-status disdain by Gatiss) provides two scenes of sustained tension bolstered by the addition of 14 extras.
Yet those audacious scenes of the king flummoxing his accusers are drawn directly from parliamentary record. They’re properly set up with an understood goal of allowing audiences to sympathize and feel the frustration when the king stymies hope. Too many of Brenton’s own scenes lack that defining tension. Until the second half of the second act, most scenes have equal weight, with characters airing aims and positions that are historically authentic but confusing to non-experts and not dramatic.
Perhaps nervous about this complexity, helmer Howard Davies slows things down. That allows his actors to display their characters wrestling with frightening choices in uncharted waters — Tom Vaughan-Lawlor does a nice line in understated but exhausted fretting as the man picked to prosecute Cromwell’s case — but overall, the slow pace doesn’t help explain, it merely makes everything feel plodding.
The decision to take this mid-17th century play and dress it, with the exception of the king, in mid-20th century costume points up Brenton’s desire to draw contemporary parallels. Yet with so many people in nearly identical suits, it’s hard to recognize important differences in status between characters.
Drama finally raises its head in Brenton’s imagined, tragic confrontation between Charles and Cromwell. Alas, it feels feel like too little, too late.