Theatre review: The Tragedy of King Richard the Second at the Almeida

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second

Written by William Shakespeare

Director: Joe Hill-Gibbins

Cast: Simon Russell Beale, Leo Bill, Martins Imhangbe, Nathalie Klamar, John Mackay, Joseph Mydell, Saskia Reeves, Robin Weaver

Almeida Theatre

NT-Live 15th January 2019

What's the point of Shakespeare if not to say something about people in the world we live today? It doesn't matter whether it takes place in period costumes or in jeans and a tee-shirt, Shakespeare's plays still have the ability to reach out and make a meaningful connection to our lives today. The necessity to ensure this element of his plays comes across as effectively as possible surely overrides even questions of fidelity to the text and it can even mean minor tweaking to the essential purpose and spirit of the play. Shakespeare must be continually tested and stretched to its limits, as this can often reveal new elements, ideas and relevance, but while the intentions are good, the production bold and innovative and the performances absolutely rivetting, the Almeida Theatre's production of The Tragedy of King Richard the Second perhaps takes things a little too far.

To put it another way,, the Almeida production was a little hard to follow even for someone familiar with the work. For anyone who doesn't know the play that well Joe Hill-Gibbins stripping the play down to 1 hour and 40 minutes didn't do a whole lot to illuminate the mechanics of the plot. The pace of the delivery meant that we didn't get time to dwell on the intricacies or nuances of characterisation, the cast rattling through the lines so quickly that it's like a Reduced Shakespeare Company version of the play. Stripped back further however to a minimalist stage, to characters wearing ordinary everyday jeans and shirts, the intention of this production is clearly not to relate a history tale but engage with the fundamentals of the work and how they apply to today. Nothing wrong with that.

What is seen as the fundamentals of the work here, and in relation to what is relevant and applicable today, is the play's meditation and consideration of the nature of England and how it is governed. In the already intimate confines of the Almeida Theatre, the stage is further boxed in by steel walls, leaving King Richard and the seven members of the cast who perform all the roles left on the stage throughout, which certainly gives the impression of the idea of being isolated on an island. Even when banished from the land, Bolingbroke remains a presence and a threat, as if there's no way Richard can get rid of his troubles that easily.

Apart from the crown and gloves (gardening gloves?) - there are lots of gages thrown around in Richard II) - the only stage props used are labelled buckets containing water, soil and blood. You can hardly get the idea of land and national identity down to a level that is any more fundamental than that, and indeed these elements are thrown about the stage, over the performers to dramatic effect. It's another way of approaching the fundamental themes of The Tragedy of King Richard the Second as being essentially about the idea of England as a nation, about the very land, its ruler out of touch with its people, and its people in conflict.

Broadcast to cinemas as part of the NT Live programme however, I remain suspicious of National Theatre's Shakespeare productions being nothing more than a showcase for honoured actors and national treasures to strut their stuff in prestigious roles. That was certainly the case for me with Sir Ian McKellan hamming it up horrendously in the NT's recent King Lear (I left at the interval), but you can't argue with Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet or indeed Simon Russell Beale's magnificent King Lear a few years ago. The spotlight almost entirely on Richard throughout, Russell Beale does play the camp side up a bit with little flicks of the head, but once the mannerisms and affectations are put aside, he brings a remarkable depth of feeling to Richard's tower speech, but of course that should be a very different Richard from the one that comes before. Part of that speech is also used as the opening scene to give what follows an abstract fevered flashback quality.

For all the riches that can be found in a fuller and more conventional performance of Richard II however, those little moments of brilliance in this production don't amount to all that much. There are certainly other interesting touches and undoubted impact in how the Hill-Gibbins chooses to use the other actors on the stage, how they are moved around, are pinned to the wall, how they launch at each other and how they are put down, but it's very much physical theatre taking precedence over the delivery of the text. Great lines and speeches are just thrown away here, which - considering all the noise and fury of the Brexit vote that coincidentally was taking place in the House of Commons at the exact time of the NT Live broadcast - may have indeed been intended as a commentary on the state of leadership in the land today, but this production didn't really need or make the fullest use of Shakespeare to deliver that point.

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