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The Tragedy of King Richard The Second
By William Shakespeare
Almeida Theatre, Islington, London
until February 2, 2019
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
N.B. This will be broadcast live to 700 UK and worldwide cinemas on Tuesday January 15, 2019. See www.ntlive.com for your nearest screening.
Most historians agree that Richard II got a bum deal from Shakespeare, who focused only on his flaws presenting the weak, young, King as fickle, capricious and vain. Today he'd probably be diagnosed with "personality disorder" but Shakespeare had his own reasons for his take on him. He was presenting him as a warning, in his time.
Richard's strong belief in the Divine Right of Kings gave him a sense of entitlement to end all and this lack of pragmatism allied to a childish streak of cruelty led to his demise. It is a remarkably astute study in power and it couldn't be more apposite today as we ponder on our own leaders' lack of leadership qualities.
Director Joe Hill-Gibbins has done something which will delight many a tired critic's heart, he's gutted the play, as if he were preparing a fish. He's trimmed away all the sub characters or cut their lines to the essential and dispensed with subplots, which were mainly plants for plotlines to be reopened in the subsequent plays in the series. It runs 1 hr 40 without an interval.
Ultz's single set is a bleak doorless vault with riveted iron grey walls and an unrelenting ceiling light. The only props are buckets marked with signs for 'blood', 'soil' or 'water' which later get used with a poetic ferocity. This is as much an interrogation cell as a throne room.
We start with a flash forward to his demise and then at roller coaster speed learn how he got there. It is modern dress and the ensemble play numerous parts so you need a good grasp of the plot going in. They are expertly choreographed by Hill-Gibbins as a chorus, sometimes sent scuttling off into corners only to re-emerge in unison to attempt, again, to overwhelm the shaky monarch. This fluidity avoids time wasting with grand entrances and exits and instead we get to focus on the core plot.
The danger with this approach of course would be that you'd lose the poetry in the pruning but this hasn't happened. We still get Gaunt's emotive 'Sceptre'd isle' speech, this time from the ever dependable Joseph Mydell.
Simon Russell Beale as Richard brings layers of ambiguity and ambivalence to every verse, like only he can. It's like observing the hum of a top of the range Rolls-Royce. This is where it's at. It takes a long time to get this good and what a joy that he's finally got round to a part for which he's so perfectly cast. It's an object lesson too in modern verse speaking, no declaiming, sometimes almost a whisper, but you still hear every word.
The only dubious note is Leo Bill's presentation of Henry Bolingbroke (who usurped Richard), as always awkward and diffident. He argued that political skill and intellect mattered more than bloodline but this Bolingbroke does not really convince that he'd have the guts to, eventually, kill a king.
This is a triumph of a production and it is great that it will get an international audience when broadcast to cinemas on January 15, 2019.