The Magna Carta Plays at Salisbury Playhouse

playsMagna2SALISBURY Playhouse’s short plays are among the most interesting of the many events and celebrations across the country marking the anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta at Runnymede 800 years ago.

First let me say that the matinee audience, mostly made up of older theatre goers (well, I’m one of them, too!), was less than impressed and some seemed more interested in (mis)quoting the Daily Telegraph review than in watching the plays.

Playhouse artistic director Gareth Machin gave a free rein to Anders Lusgarten, Sally Woodcock, Howard Brenton and Timberlake Wertenbaker when he invited them to create works inspired by the great charter, and the resulting “show” was varied and always thought-provoking.

Sally Woodcock’s Pink Gin, hilariously performed by Trevor Michael Georges as an African president, with Tim Frances and Vivienne Rochester, was the least successful contribution, having a distinct work-in-progress feel, as though the original idea never had time to be worked through. Its title refers to the President’s favourite tipple, and the lengths to which he will go to acquire the Angostura Bitters needed to achieve it. It was about local distinctiveness versus big corporations, but it needs much more work.
The afternoon started with Lusgarten’s Kingmakers, introduced by one Sprocket, an everyman whose effectiveness depends on sharp teeth and grease (aka politicking and cash), introducing the audience to the barons, ten years after King John signed the charter of rights.

John is dead and his son is just about to come of age, so the barons are working out ways to ensure that their power remains absolute. A saturnine Lord Lamprey (named for the fish that killed the king) dines with Earl Grabber, Lady Plunder and Duke Venal, as our Sprocket (Mark Meadows) explains how to finagle the money, land and glory from the fledgling king.

Sadly for them, Henry III (Ben Stott) is a streetwise urban DJ into hip-hop speak and dissing dad, but together they form an irresistible force.

Brenton’s Ransomed shines a light on a devious secret service, ready to trade with anyone (here a Russian oligarch), and careless of the human cost. It’s a  little thriller, staged in a cathedral city and an army base nearby, and has all the tension needed to keep you on the edge of your seats. Tim Francis is back as the Russian, with Juliet Howland (Lady Plunder earlier) as the aristo-bimbo, Mark Meadows as the scary SIS man and Joanna van Kampen as the ardent police inspector.

The final play, We Sell Right, is a chilling look into the future, when the government has sold off everything to the highest bidder.

Two women, clinging onto the fragments of the old life, have bought a word at auction, and they want to pass it on to the daughter of the dead campaigner in whose name they made the purchase.  She is terrified of everything and everyone, and when they give her the word, she can’t find it on her tablet … it has ceased to exist.

Frances Jeater, Vivienne Rochester and Joanna Van Kampen play this urgent and all-too-possible story for real, and it sends the audience out nervous of the latest sponsorship advertisement.

These are fascinating plays exploring the rights of the common man in the light of 21st century “progress.”  Don’t miss them, and please, don’t do what the man behind me threatened!

“If Salisbury goes on like this, I’ll save up for Chichester, where they do  proper musicals,” he said. I wonder what he was expecting – There’s a Bright Golden Haze over Runnymede?


The Magna Carta Plays continue until Saturday  7th November.

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