CULTURE: Shepherd Shines Light on British History; Actor and Writer Jack Shepherd Tells Terry Grimley Why He Believes Theatre Audiences Are Ready for Serious Plays about Revolution and Citizenship
Byline: Terry Grimley
When Jack Shepherd's new play Through a Cloud opens at Birmingham Rep tonight, there is a sense in which it will be coming home.
It was partly written in the building last year, when Shepherd was appearing in the David Hare trilogy at the Rep and staying in a flat at the top of the theatre.
'The play was going through its final stages, and there was no distraction,' he recalls. 'It was a very odd feeling to get up in the morning, put the kettle on and walk about 15 paces to the rehearsal room.'
One of Britain's most recognisable actors, having served his time as a TV policeman in Wyclife among many other roles, Shepherd also has a substantial list of plays to his credit as an author. However,Through a Cloud provides a kind of companion piece to the first, In Lambeth.
Both focus on imaginary conversations between real historical figures. Where in the case of In Lambeth Tom Paine and William Blake were debating the revolution about to take place in France, in Through a Cloud Oliver Cromwell and his literary champion John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost and Secretary for Foreign Languages, survey the wreckage of the English revolution. Shepherd himself plays the role of Milton.
Cromwell, I suggest, is a figure we never seem to have quite made up our minds about. His statue stands outside Parliament, but he is seen as a dour religious fundamentalist with a record of savagery in Ireland.
However, Shepherd questions whether he has had a fair press in England.
'I don't think it's quite as ambivalent as that. If you read American books you find they have much less difficulty with Cromwell than English historians, who have tended to be Royalists. A lot of the bad press he gets is just propaganda from people still furious about the execution of the King.
'There is the question of whether Cromwell was poisoned. His doctor confessed to it, but English historians have always dismissed that as the delusion of a man dying of the pox.
'As far as Ireland was concerned, he probably lost his temper at Drogheda [scene of a notorious massacre in 1649 which resulted in between 2,000 and 4,000 deaths], but apart from that it was fairly standard practice if a town held out to the bitter end. They all knew what they were in for once the walls were broken down.'
At least Cromwell, unlike Richard III, did not have to suffer a Shakespearean onslaught on his reputation: 'I think Shakespeare would have had no time for Cromwell at all. He tends to come down very hard on people who try to change society too radically - Jack Cade, for example.'
A central theme of the play is the danger that arises when political idealism and religious fundamentalism become confused. This has more contemporary resonance today than it did when Shepherd began writing the play three years ago.
But he adds: 'The image of Cromwell as a puritan is not entirely accurate. He acted in plays in his own back garden. He was not a misanthrope like Tartuffe.
'Milton is more of a fanatic. By this time of his life Cromwell will compromise on belief. He thinks and talks more like a trade union leader than he does a principled zealot, whereas Milton has more of the Taliban in him than that.'
The material may sound a little dry, but the dramatist's art is to give it life, to strike a balance between doing justice to history and pointing up contemporary resonance.
'Audiences enjoy it,' says Shepherd. …