THE HOLLOW CROWN conceived and directed by John Barton, with Vanessa Redgrave, Ian Richardson, Donald Sinden and Alan Howard. Presented by Ed Mirvish at the Princess of Wales Theatre (300 King West). Runs to February 29, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday, Saturday-Sunday 2 pm. $26-$75. 416-872-1212. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Even theatre royalty need a strong script or a compelling dramatic situation to show what they can do. Consider The Hollow Crown , an uneven pastiche of songs, letters, speeches and poems by and about several centuries of English monarchs. As performed by Donald Sinden , Vanessa Redgrave , Alan Howard and Ian Richardson , there are lots of brilliant moments. But there are just as many tepid scenes you'd like to send to the Tower of London.
A staple of the Royal Shakespeare Company's repertoire since 1960, this party piece for aging thesps - conceived and directed by John Barton - works best when it sets up a compelling character or situation.
A growling Sinden plays Henry VIII writing a letter proposing to one of his future wives. This is followed by Redgrave as that wife, Anne Boleyn, two years later writing back to her husband begging for her life on the eve of her execution. Haunting.
Another sequence groups together four royal attempts at poetry, and it's fascinating what the royals are able to express within the limits of the form and their public duties.
But for every glistening jewel there are two or three pieces displaying empty rhetoric or missed opportunities. There's little point to an overlong, gushing meeting between novelist Fanny Burney and George III, or in E.M. Forster's aunt's description of the madness of the same monarch.
The luminous Redgrave walks away with many of the show's best scenes, which range from a precocious 15-year-old Jane Austen revealing her own impressions of the monarchy to a sickly Mary Tudor nervously addressing her court, and finally an 18-year-old Victoria chillingly giving an account of her coronation day.
The scene in which Richardson as William Makepeace Thackeray cuttingly describes the superficiality of George IV shows how good these actors can be when they're given decent prose to perform. On the other hand, Howard shows skill in getting under the skin of an ordinary bloke describing the unattractive Queen of Naples as "much-nosed."
Warning: there's a fifth performer, guitarist Stephen Gray , who sings ditties and looks as if he's wandered in from a community production of Godspell.
Ironically, the most difficult piece of acting requires the four actors to feign enthusiasm - for these silly songs and each other's stories. They've heard them hundreds of times before, but here they are, hands clasped, brows knitted, pretending to be captivated. Now that's royal acting.