Saturday, 5 January 2019

Theatre review: The Tragedy of King Richard
The Second

Simon Russell Beale first made his name as a Shakespearean actor taking on roles that didn't always seem immediately obvious fits for him (I first saw him as Edgar in King Lear, then Ariel in The Tempest.) By contrast Richard II seems like a part he was born to play, but in recent years he's often said he regretted never getting the chance while he was young enough (the real king died aged 33, inasmuch as historical accuracy ever matters where Shakespeare's Histories are concerned.) If someone was going to come along and give him the chance to play the part in his fifties, it makes sense for it to be Joe Hill-Gibbins, never a director to get too hung up on the literal. Hill-Gibbins has restored the full original title The Tragedy of King Richard The Second but elsewhere he and Jeff James have ruthlessly cut down the text so the play comes in at a little over 90 minutes.

Also cut down is the cast - with only eight people on stage, this has the same amount of doubling as one of the Globe's "tiny" tours, and while the six supporting actors don't make a huge distinction between their various roles, this feels very much the point.

Because what this has been stripped down to is the story of two men, SRB's Richard and Leo Bill's Henry Bolingbroke, and the violent transfer of power from one to the other. Bolingbroke is banished from England for six years when his father John of Gaunt (Joseph Mydell) dies, and Richard uses his absence as an excuse to seize the family's lands and wealth to fund a military campaign in Ireland. Previously willing to accept the divine right of the king, Richard's adding insult to injury spurs Henry to return from banishment and mount a challenge. Faced with an alternative to the capricious, narcissistic ruler they'd been used to, the public's support quickly shifts to Bolingbroke.

Ultz's set is a doorless, windowless metal prison cell, and for me the production turned this into the story of two men who both start out free and end up imprisoned in different ways: Richard literally ending his days in a cell, but Henry also taking power and finding that once he has it he doesn't know what to do with it. Bolingbroke is generally played as a slick politician who's comfortable in the throne once he's got it, but Bill's version is much more the kind of politician we've actually got in power, grabbing the top job because it's there for the taking but flustered at the first actual problem. Hill-Gibbins really focuses on the fact that once he's in charge, Henry IV's first major public crises are farcical: First there's the always-funny scene of everyone at court literally throwing down the gauntlet to each other until there's no gloves left - it particularly struck me this time how this mirrors the challenge that led to Bolingbroke's banishment in the first place. Henry's vendetta against Richard began with the king's hamfisted way of dealing with the duel, but we soon see it look positively well-handled compared to the chaos he presides over as soon as he takes over.

Even more violently chaotic is the aftermath to the discovery of a plot against Henry, with conspirator Aumerle's (Martins Imhangbe) father York (John Mackay) petitioning for his son's death while his wife the Duchess (Saskia Reeves) fights to have him pardoned. If this is the kind of trouble that comes with leadership, then, it's no wonder the other six cast members are happy to let these two go at it: For much of the play they huddle in a group, craving anonymity, Mackay's York even trying to wriggle out of the spotlight when he's chosen to lead the country in Richard's absence.

The prison theme is also key to SRB's casting as the lead: The story's told in flashback, opening with Richard in his cell and looking back in regret at his fall from grace. We might be used to seeing the character played by an actor decades younger, but this isn't the man who rules unwisely in his twenties, he's one who could well have been rotting in that cell for years reliving these events. And these aren't necessarily reliable memories, thanks to the surreal tinge to the production: The character of Richard's unnamed Queen has been cut, but her encounter with two gardeners has been turned into a dream sequence in which Richard finds out what people would never dare say to his face.

What we don't really get much of is the obnoxiousness of Richard; the play charts the king finding a kind of decency once he's lost everything else, and by starting at the end we don't see the man-child who rules on a whim. The only really cruel scene is the callous treatment of the dying Gaunt, and even that is dealt with briskly; it's not enough to imagine the country rising up against what was until then accepted as the divinely appointed monarch. But then maybe that's more in keeping with the treatment of the characters as modern-day politicians: An imprefect ruler easily thrown over in favour of one who's no better if not worse.

As well as the cuts to the text, the short running time comes from some very fast speaking of the lines, and it took me a while to warm to the production as its ideas gradually started to form. It's still not really a production for anyone new to the play - the origins of Bolingbroke's grudge are dealt with perfunctorily, and even later on the conspiracy against Henry IV is largely cut, until at one point the rest of the cast turn up to list a seemingly random list of heads that have been cut off. Unsurprisingly from the director who turned a bloodbath into a jelly-fight, it's not just the politics that's messy here and mud, blood and buckets of water regularly get thrown over the cast, but the messiness does eventually become the point. There's definitely clearer, more coherent ways to tell this story but not as many ways to twist and deconstruct it with such rewarding and memorable results.

The Tragedy of King Richard The Second by William Shakespeare is booking until the 2nd of February at the Almeida Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


  1. Seeing this soon - should be fascinating - but I'm sitting on the front row. Is this likely to be dangerous/messy?

    1. There's grating halfway up the stage to catch the worst of it, and until the very end all the blood and mud seems to be kept behind that. At the curtain call SRB was apologising to the person front row dead centre so there's obviously a risk of getting splashed, but they seem to be trying to avoid it as much as possible.