By William Shakespeare
Directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins
Venue: Almeida Theatre
Date: Tuesday 8th January 2019
“I have been studying how I may compare this prison where I live unto the world”: not the usual start to Richard II, but when Simon Russell Beale came to the front of the box-like stage, clad in dark leggings and a black top, to deliver this line, I grasped instantly that this production was set entirely within the deposed king’s mind. All the other ‘characters’ were simply his perception of those people, and he was spending his time going over and over the events that led up to his deposition, as if trying to figure out where it all went wrong. Or perhaps nurturing his grudges in case he ever got the chance at revenge. Whatever his motivation, this was an excellent way to allow Simon to play a part which, in a ‘traditional’ production, he would be too old for, and allow the rest of us to rejoice in hearing these lines spoken so brilliantly by one of our finest actors, whether of Shakespeare or anything else.
I will just briefly describe the set. It was screened off before the start, and the performance began with an ominous droning sound. When the lights were raised, along with the screen, the cast were already in the box, with most of them facing the back wall. The walls were black, their clothes were modern, drab and dark, and the cell was topped with translucent light panels. I spotted several buckets lined up against the wall, with labels reading “blood”, “water” and “soil”: fortunately, I also noticed that the front of the stage curved up slightly, reducing the chance of spillage, which was a relief given we were sitting in the front row. The level of the stage was also raised up – the Almeida stage is normally pretty low – but we could still see everything clearly from our position. I also noticed after a short while that the rest of the cast had assorted gloves about their persons – including at least one pair of gardening gloves – which would come in handy later.
The cast turned round to face the audience on “these same thoughts people this little world”, confirming my first impression, and a talented cast then took on the rest of the roles in this truncated version of the play. After Richard’s initial musings, the play returned to the regular text, with the king asking John of Gaunt (Joseph Mydell) if he had brought his son, Bolingbroke (Leo Bill), as ordered to explain his recent outburst against Mowbray (Saskia Reeves). He had, and the two antagonists were soon hurling more insults at each other: it was wonderful to hear Saskia Reeves’ fine delivery of Shakespeare’s verse again, and Leo wasn’t far behind. Given that this was Richard’s view of Bolingbroke, he came across as a bit weak and lacking in maturity, and while this production didn’t give the actor room to elaborate on his character, at least this portrayal helped to underline Richard’s perceptions.
Off to the combat at Coventry, and Bolingbroke was so impatient to get going that he interrupted the herald’s announcement to declare who he was, which gave us all a laugh. They may have left the gauntlet flinging until this bit, and the herald gathered them both up and gave them to Richard, who threw them both down to stop the fight. The conference to decide what to do with the combatants has probably never been so quick, and the verdicts were followed by shortened responses from both ‘men’. Gaunt’s rebuke to Richard – including “but not a minute, King, that thou canst give” – was trimmed, while the leave-taking between Gaunt and his son, if anything, took a bit too long, perhaps because the characters were necessarily limited in this production.
They rattled through the reports of Bolingbroke’s departure, and were quickly off to visit the sickly Gaunt, with Richard’s prayer “Now put it, God, into his physician’s mind…” still included: Richard certainly wasn’t doing much to win over the hearts and minds of this audience. Even so, things deteriorated at Gaunt’s castle (or the left wall, as it happened), with Gaunt taking Richard’s crown on the line “a thousand flatterers sit within thy crown”. He did give it back, but while he was in the process of hobbling off to die, Richard spoke his lines about “the ripest fruit first falls”, going straight into his plans for war in Ireland, and claiming Gaunt’s worldly possessions before the man was even dead. Thus it was Gaunt himself who delivered the outburst usually provided by York, suitably edited, before ceasing to be.
With Richard not being privy to the conspiracies and plotting against him, he knelt in the middle of the floor for a bit while the conspirators (various actors) formed a little group on the left of the stage, and Bushy, Bagot and the rest formed up on the right hand side. Given that the actors were involved in more than one group, this led to a lot of movement across the stage, while the closeness and secrecy of the conspiracy was indicated by the actors leaning in to one another. The queen didn’t appear in this bit, as I recall, and it went through quite quickly, including the encounter with the Duke of York (John Mackay). Bushy and Green were executed by having a bucket of blood thrown over them as they stood in the back left corner – the blood made an interesting spatter pattern on the wall but it wasn’t distracting, fortunately.
Richard then got to his feet, having returned from Ireland. He went through the various ups and downs of this scene very well, albeit in a shortened form, and his capture by Bolingbroke followed swiftly. When that was done Richard lay down at the back of the stage to allow the rest of the cast to tell us about the early days of Henry IV’s reign – the gauntlets were flying thick and fast, causing much merriment in the audience, and the characters ended up having a general fight. It reminded me of The Watsons at Chichester last year – when the author, in this case Richard himself, was asleep, the characters could do whatever they wanted, and in this case they degenerated into a rabble. Presumably that was part of Richard’s view of events: après moi, la deluge. It helped that we knew the story: with the actors playing so many roles, and some of them newly introduced, I’m not sure what beginners would have made of it, but they certainly kept the energy up for this bit.
Richard came in for his deposition scene, with Northumberland (Robin Weaver) clearly playing the attack dog role for Bolingbroke. Richard’s reluctance to let go of the crown led to a real tussle between him and Bolingbroke, and they used a bucket of water for the mirror. This allowed Richard to throw the water over the left wall when he smashed the ‘mirror’ – none of it came in our direction, thankfully. After all the verbal sparring, Bolingbroke put the crown on, and the cast called out “God save the King, Amen.”
I’m not sure where Richard went for the next bit, but the lights were lowered and the plotting started up again, in similar vein to the first time. There was a brief meeting between Richard and his queen (don’t remember who played her) and Richard had a chance to make his prophecy about Northumberland’s future betrayal of Henry IV before being taken off to Pomfret.
With all that hard work, it’s not too surprising that most of the actors now lay down or sat on the floor to have a little rest. Bolingbroke was wide awake, and walked across the stage, giving us the speech from Henry IV part 1, Act 3, scene 1, ending “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” Bit late now, sunshine! After this, we heard York’s description of Richard being led in procession, before Aumerle (Martins Imhangbe), flashing the letter provocatively, allowed his involvement in a conspiracy to be discovered. Soon we were back with the (new) king, as all three of the Yorks arrived in turn, begging Henry to support them. Once the duchess arrived, the game was over, and Henry pardoned Aumerle. They did this section intact, as far as I could tell, and the comedy really cheered us up.
At Pomfret, Richard stood at the back of the stage, with the lights lowered, and reprised his opening lines – “I have been studying…”. He came forward, and this time he continued the speech, leading to the comments about the music and the visit from the groom. I don’t remember who did the actual killing, but they used the final bucket of blood, and there was a moment of nervousness as it swayed dangerously in the hands of a killer. Bolingbroke banished him/her, and showed every sign of remorse as he came to the front of the stage, weeping, to follow Richard’s bier. Lights. Lots of applause.
It feels strange to race through a description of a Shakespearean production, but with the text so altered, it’s all I can do to remember this much. With the focus so much on Richard himself, there were a few places where the energy dropped when only the other characters were around – they were two-dimensional compared to a full production, so it’s not the fault of the actors – but it kept this from rating any higher in our view. The use of blood, water and soil wasn’t a problem for us – we have seen this sort of thing before – but it didn’t add to the performance, while the modern dress and bare, box-like setting gave the story a certain timelessness. Steve didn’t enjoy this as much as I did, but we agreed on the overall rating, and were just glad we’d been able to fit this in – Simon Russell Beale’s performance alone was worth it.
© 2019 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me