Chichester's artistic triumvirate ends its tenure on a high note: Edward Kemp's 5/11 is a rich, exciting piece of narrative theatre, beautifully directed by Steven Pimlott, about the Gunpowder Plot. Like all the best historical drama, it offers manifest parallels with the present.
Kemp's argument is that the plan to blow up king and parliament had economic as well as religious origins. Promised toleration by James I, England's Catholics were subject to punitive recusancy fines to pay for royal extravagance. But Kemp also shows that Catesby and his conspirators were passionate believers whose loyalty was to a supra-national Catholic Church. In one of the play's best scenes, we see Catesby trying to extract intellectual justification for acts of terror from the cautious Jesuit leader, Henry Garnet.
Kemp's play looks both backwards and forwards. There are allusions to Julius Caesar and Macbeth as well as nods to Brecht ("Food first, morals later" says Garnet) and to our present troubles: at one point Sir Robert Cecil compares his tulip-beds to "a row of imams in their turbans". But, while Kemp topically suggests that the Gunpowder Plot was a disproportionate response to persecution that would have killed the innocent along with the guilty, he also argues that a state that reneges on promised multiculturalism invites disaster.
With a vast cast of 25, Pimlott creates a brilliant spectacle juxtaposing colourful royal pageants and dark nocturnal conspiracies. Strong performances too from Stephen Noonan as the tunnel-visioned Catesby, Richard O'Callaghan as the conscience-troubled Garnet, Hugh Ross as the Machiavellian Cecil and Alistair McGowan as the bisexual king.
The artistic triumvirate that has run Chichester Festival Theatre for the past three years is going out with a bang as it premieres a big, bold, joltingly topical new play about the Gunpowder Plot of 400 years ago. Steven Pimlott, Ruth Mackenzie and Martin Duncan have pulled the Sussex venue back from the brink of disaster, and turned it into one of the most exciting regional theatres in Britain. 5/11 is an impressive swan song.
Edward Kemp's play is an epic, with a cast of 25, impressive designs by Ashley Martin-Davis, and a sweepingly confident production by Pimlott which presents the complex story with clarity, wit and an alert eye for contemporary resonance. The title itself invites the audience to draw parallels between the Catholic attempt to blow up King and Parliament on November 5, 1605, and the current Muslim fundamentalist attacks on the West, most notably the destruction of the Twin Towers, and the so-called war on terror. Kemp, in short, is using history to write about current concerns, and his play has been lent a further urgency by the recent London bombings.
The drama is at its most impressive when trying to get inside the minds and souls of the conspirators, whose warped religious faith leads them to view the massacre of innocents as a demonstration of God's power and glory. Kemp shows that, like today's radicalised Muslims, the Catholic conspirators owe allegiance not to their country but to their religion. There are crucial differences, however. Catholics under Elizabeth I and, after an illusory promise of tolerance, James I, were actively persecuted by the state. That is hardly the case with today's adolescent Asian firebrands in Bradford and Leeds. And in the play's presentation of the great spymaster Robert Cecil, played with silkily urbane deviousness by Hugh Ross, you get the impression that the intelligence service of 400 years ago was more clued-up, and infinitely more ruthless, than the blundering, politically-correct security forces of today.
imlott directs with a superb, fast-flowing assurance, in a production that combines the old story with a distinctly modern sensibility. And though it is sometimes hard to keep tabs on the huge variety of characters, the basic outline of the narrative emerges with admirable clarity and dramatic power. As well as Ross's Cecil, there are terrific performances from Alistair McGowan, who presents the Scottish King James I as a hilariously gabby gay version of Billy Connolly, and from Stephen Noonan as a Catesby who exudes all the frightening, wild-eyed intensity of the true fanatic.
It's clear from the title that Edward Kemp's 5/11 does not intend to treat us to a straightforward drama about the Gunpowder Plot. Instead, it views 1605 in the light of September 11 2001 and beyond. The result is a thought-provoking play-for-today, staged with enormous flair by Steven Pimlott in a production that skilfully deploys a company of 20-odd actors and negotiates with aplomb the jumps of tone from the skittish to the serious.
The script crawls with calculated anachronisms: these Jacobeans plagiarise lines by the likes of Brecht and Rupert Brooke, and use yet-to-be-coined terms such as "terrorism". At one point, Sir Robert Cecil likens his tulips to "an army of imams in their turbans". But the play does not make the crude claim that Roman Catholics were the Islamic extremists of this era. It's more the case that we get a fresh perspective on our current problems from the way that 5/11 demonstrates that this is not the first time that angry young men of an alienated minority have turned to murder in the name of religion.
The play declines to be partisan. We sympathise with the Catholics when the hopes of toleration in the new reign are dashed because the exchequer - which is being bankrupted by the extravagances of James I (amusingly caricatured by Alistair McGowan) - needs the money that will be brought in by re-imposing the recusancy tax. We register that, for ruthless cunning, the plotters are more than matched by the Jacobean establishment. But does this justify Stephen Noonan's fanatical Catesby and his bunch of extremists in the belief that they are God's chosen instruments, who thereby have leave to blow up the innocent as well as the guilty?
Edward Kemp's 5/11 is an ambitious example of the latest trend in British playwriting: "monsterism", i.e. plays employing large casts. (Thanks to the arts economics of the past 25 years, it has become rare to see a new play that uses more than six actors. Monsterism means to establish a thriving alternative.) There are quite a few moments when Kemp seems to have left no character, no incidental detail, out of his account of the tale of the dissident Catholics of 1600-05, who plotted unsuccessfully to blow up the Houses of Commons and are commemorated every November 5 as Guy Fawkes day. But when I found myself occasionally wishing he had made a closer study of how Shakespeare paces the multiple plots of his history plays, I realised just how much he had already achieved. Even if you do not at first grasp who all these Jacobean characters are, they are remarkably distinct, and soon enough become identifiable amid Kemp's generous,broad handling of the conspiracy. There are details about James I that the plot does not need, yet they entertain: if they were excised (the king's boyfriend, the caged dodo, Cecil's bad back),we should miss them. All the characters seem remarkably real, even James's partly bizarre wife Anne. The Catholic plotters become engrossingly serious. And Robert Cecil (secretary to the council) in particular becomes a superbly rounded character. Pimlott stages it with colour and scale, relishing the contrasts between Catholic zealots and frivolous Protestant courtiers, between religious and secular lives, between men and women. It is a vividly enlightening play: the audience leaves with a new depth of feeling and understanding about the events it has been marking in relative ignorance every Guy Fawkes' day.
Terrorism, or the actions of fanatics who use religion to justify the killing of innocents is nothing new. Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot.
Edward Kemp's explosive new play, 5/11, does precisely that, and uses as much fact as the playwright can find to speculate on the plan by some young Catholics to blow up the Palace of Westminster, the heart of the English Government.
Like the 21/7 terrorist attack in London, 5/11 in 1605 failed, though this was thanks to the astute politician Sir Robert Cecil (excellent, steely Hugh Ross),who could smell a rat, if not the three dozen barrels of gunpowder that had been buried beneath Parliament.
As a political thriller, Kemp's ambitious piece grips; as a historical drama, it brings to vividly entertaining life the atmosphere of Britain when Queen Elizabeth had finally died (to begin with she sits in the shadows in her wheelchair, a near skeleton, with rasping, gasping breath) and King James is bankrupting the country.
Whether the real James was quite the tartan buffoon Alistair McGowan suggests, I don't know, but his caricature is a hoot. This playboy king whiles away the time chasing boars and boys, or dressing up in green pixie boots to run around the forest as Robin Hood. 'Where's Wales?' he asks when told that 100 Catholics have gathered there, and suggests Cecil recalls Parliament on a Tuesday because 'nice things always happen to me on Tuesdays'.
But it's the way in which the play inevitably draws parallels between the Muslim extremists behind the current terrorist attacks and this small cell of Roman Catholic bombers and casual mercenaries (Guy Fawkes, who had been trained abroad) that this play is most potent and provocative.
These religious and political martyrs, led by Catesby (a passionate Stephen Noonan) believe they are executing the will of (their) God. As devout Catholics, who seek the blessing of the Church for their mission to defend their faith, they are desperately disillusioned by the way in which King James is allowing the country to drift further and further from the absolutes of the Roman Catholicism. But , as Cecil says: 'Where is the courage of gunpowder?' Martyrdom is one thing, murder another.
In one scene in Steven Pimlott's superbly staged and performed production, the insurgents gather at a table, just as Jesus and his disciples did for the Last Supper. Yes, and one of them proves to be the Judas figure. Highly recommended.
A cell of young men, driven by religious fervour, covertly plan a terrorist attack: it's no wonder the Gunpowder Plot is currently such a hot theatrical topic. After the RSC's Gunpowder Season, Edward Kemp's 5/11 examines the unstable political climate surrounding the death of Elizabeth I and the accession of James I , depicting a world of underground extremism, political brutality and explosive danger. A few ruffs hint at the historical accuracy, but this plays flaunts a deliberately modern sensibility: James's opulent court flashes punk-rock attitude, thanks to swathes of lurid tartan and Alistair McGowan's robust turn as the butch, bisexual king, while the deadly political operative Sir Robert Cecil (Hugh Ross) has both filing cabinet and Anglepoise lamp. The Catholic conspirators, meanwhile, turn from historical shadows into flesh-and-blood creatures, their flawed humanity especially vivid in Stephen Noonan, as the fanatical Catesby, and Richard O'Callaghan, as the conflicted Jesuit Henry Garnet. Patchworking together comedy and tragedy, ancient and modern, fact and fiction, Kemp has stitched an epic sweep of British history that unfurls across the stage like a great silk flag, telling us something of where we have come from and how we got here.