Theatre Review: The Tragedy of King Richard The Second, Almeida Theatre, Islington
- Credit: Archant
Simon Russell Beale’s nuanced performance carries Hill-Gibbins’ heavily abridged, heavy handed production
Joe Hill-Gibbins’ plain-clothes production of Richard II is deliberately claustrophobic.
It begins with a speech from near the end of the play, in which the ill-fated king, by then recently usurped by Bolingbroke, compares his prison ‘unto the world’.
Richard’s words are mirrored by a cage-like set, walled by sheets of metal without an exit. All the actors are trapped on stage and remain there until the performance ends.
This boxed-in drama does have its strengths. In a play beset by so much political division – between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, John of Gaunt and Richard, Richard and Bolingbroke – there is no
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escaping conflict. All these wrathful contests become more forceful and inescapable when hemmed in by three walls.
The shifting alliances of conniving aristocrats are also well-suited to the space, with plots hatched in the cramped confines beside the walls.
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And yet, at times the direction seems strained by the need to have eight actors on stage at once. Often, a bundle of actors huddle together by the back wall, rooted to the spot – an on-stage audience with no place to hide. The lack of entrances and exits is not Hill-Gibbin’s only unusual decision: at only 100 minutes in length (with no interval), Shakespeare is rarely over so quickly.
The heavily abridged text is only a partial explanation for the reduced running time; rushed dialogue is the other.
All cast members are occasionally guilty of racing through their lines at breakneck speed, making scenes like Bolingbroke and Mowbray’s banishment all too breathless.
The emphasis is on emotion and visuals – buckets of blood, water and soil litter the stage, ready to be thrown as markers of death and humiliation - at the expense of language.
There are more measured moments, especially as things draw to a close. After Bolingbroke has returned to England from exile and has outmanoeuvred Richard, aggrieved by the king’s decision to seize his land and inheritance, the pace slows and reflection begins.
Richard, languishing in a cell, tries to come to terms with his fall from kingly power, which he perceives as his by divine right, and the usurper struggles with how best to articulate the legitimacy of his rule.
Simon Russell Beale stands out as a petty, bombastic and out of touch Richard. Humbled by the turn of events, he ponders his predicament with light touches of humour and growing melancholy.
He is visibly degraded, soaked by water and covered in soil, as he movingly delivers, for the second time, the speech comparing his cell to the world and memorably marks his own tragedy: “Thus play I in one person many people,/And none contented”.