Friday, 2 November 2012

Princes & Puritans

It's becoming a seventeenth-century season.   
In historical order:
The Lost Prince: Henry Stuart, a exhibition triumph at the NPG about a wholly forgotten figure, presented in portraiture with awkward arrogance and royal pride.  Visually, it's about the splendour of Jacobean costume: gold-embroidered silks, filigree lace stand-up collars, pink and purple shoe pompoms, padded sleeves and sumptuous breeches over swashbuckling boots. All the finery that the Puritan preachers assailed.   Henry's first inlaid suit of armour is both splendid and poignant, being for a young teenager.   Henry died in 1612, aged 18.
Making his younger brother Charles heir to the kingdom.
And we all know what happened to him: Howard Brenton's new play 55 Days at Hampstead Theatre needs no historical backstory, but plunges straight into the turbulent conflict between Crown and Country 1648-9 leading to Charles's execution, which nobody wanted, unless perhaps it was Charles (Mike Gattis got up uncannily like the Van Dyck portait) unable to contemplate relinquishing any aspect of his divinely-appointed role. Cromwell and the New Model Army, clad in uniform military black, don't rightly know what to do; at any critical moment they shut their eyes and stab a finger in the bible.  Like a sibylline leaf the random text provides divine guidance.
Which leads neatly to the third piece, Vaughan Williams's opera of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress at the ENO.  Though here staged with mid-20th century costumes and allusions, this is the prime Puritan text, second only to the bible in Dissenting history, adjuring the pious to struggle on through temptation, doubt and despair, renouncing not just the devil and his works but all worldly fortune, fame and pleasure. Though  the vocal lines are a bit churchy for today, VW's orchestration is rich and absorbing and the message only as religious as you wish it to be.  Apollyon is terrific, if rather easy to puncture. The song of the woodcutter's boy (here played as a dinner-lady with soup-trolley)  throws out a vivid allusion to both  Prince Henry and King Charles.
 He that is down need fear no fall, He that is low, no pride

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