This year is the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, the document that laid the foundation for modern British democracy. To commemorate the anniversary, Steve Hawes wrote The Great Charter and presented it as a rehearsed staged reading by So & So Arts Club, directed by Sarah Berger.
I was initially wary of the use of a hotel conference room instead of a theatre, but the space worked surprisingly well. A high quality sound system and projector helped contribute to the play’s historical atmosphere and a platform was an effective stage. A grey plinth created another level on the stage and was aptly reminiscent of Richard III’s newly-carved tomb in Leicester Cathedral. Even though stage lighting was used, the entire room’s ceiling lights stayed on, further creating a period-style performance. There was very little interaction between performers and the audience due to the use of scripts, but the potential was there and allowed for a more relaxed, communal theatre experience.
The performers were clearly rehearsed and familiar with the script, showing the beginnings of character development. Ensemble work was minimal, but to be expected considering it was a staged reading. There were some moments of lovely chemistry, such as Sarah Lawrie as outcast leper Alys and Faye Winter as King John’s frustrated queen, Isabella. Winter and Hugh John as William also shared a great scene hinting at their forbidden affair.
Though the reading was directed and performed skilfully, the script let down the evening. The first half was almost completely exposition, building up to King John’s re-crowning before the interval, which was anti-climactic. The characters certainly do a lot of talking, but engage in very little action. Rather than showing us the important events, they are discussed at length with most action happening in between scenes or offstage. Overall, very little actually happens in the two hours’ traffic on our stage, but events are debated and discussed, at length. Fortunately, the scenes are generally short with crisp transitions.
The characters themselves have very little evolution or reasoning behind their choices. King John is clearly a terrible person, but there is never much explanation for his selfish actions, whether it’s taking his friends’ wives for his own use or locking up his wife in a castle for her own “safety.” There is little character development, though potential for plenty: the two most engaging characters, Isabella and Spike, have relatively few scenes and their personal journeys are downplayed. This has the effect of two-demensional characters. Perhaps this play focuses on historical accuracy, but we all know that history is often quite boring. Good historical dramas take plenty of creative license, with necessity. This play needs much more of it. Adding more fights, showing the revolts, and more stage time to the subplots will make the existing story into a much more dramatic piece of theatre.
The reading was a suitable commemoration to the Magna Carta anniversary, but if the play aspires to become a fully staged production, the script will need to be heavily overhauled. A great performance team helped pass the time, but this would not be enough in a full production.
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