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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Richard II
Almeida Theatre  Winter 2018-2019

This is a crisp, clear and fast-moving staging of Shakespeare's Richard II whose greatest strengths are its speed and clarity, along with a subtly insightful central performance. That's particularly impressive because of the challenges director Joe Hill-Gibbins sets himself and his cast.

Performing on a bare stage without costumes, Simon Russell Beale plays Richard, Leo Bill plays Bolingbroke, and six other actors double and redouble roles, sometimes crossing genders, to play Everyone Else. Running time is kept to an uninterrupted 100 minutes through heavy trimming of the text and rapid verse-speaking that only very rarely – less often than in many more conventional productions – descends into gabble.

As a result the sometimes convoluted story is always easy to follow, which is an accomplishment in itself.

Belated reminder: King Richard banishes his troublesome cousin Henry Bolingbroke and confiscates his lands and inheritance. Henry returns to claim what is his, and somehow ends up seizing the crown, becoming Henry IV.

The key question facing anyone playing Richard is why the king effectively abdicates even before Henry makes a move on him. As is often the case, Simon Russell Beale finds a fresh and convincing insight into his character.

For all Richard's sentimentality, the actor sees in him a greater pragmatism and realism than anyone else onstage. His Richard sees, even before Henry himself, that Henry's larger army means he can take anything he wants, and he knows Henry well enough to know that once Henry realises he can, he will.

It is an illuminating reading of the character that makes Richard far more strong and dignified, even in defeat, than many have played him. It also goes without saying that Simon Russell Beale is one of the finest verse-speakers we have, making every line crystal clear.

There are some losses to director Hill-Gibbins' no-nonsense approach. The central moral question that haunted Shakespeare throughout his career – who deserves power, a rightful king who is bad at the job or a usurper who is good at it? - goes by the wayside.

The textual trimming leaves some of the set pieces standing in isolation without their context, sometimes giving the impression they're being included just because they're famous. And the rapid conversational style robs the play of some of its poetry, as even 'This blessed plot, this realm, this England' and 'Tell sad stories of the deaths of kings', when spoken as ordinary dialogue, go by almost unnoticed.

Leo Bill as Henry generously allows Richard's strength of character to eclipse his, and the actor frequently loses himself in the crowd. The rest of the cast – Martins Imhangbe, Natalie Klamar, John Mackay, Joseph Mydell, Saskia Reeves and Robin Weaver – have little opportunity to create individual characters and are most impressive in evoking the shifting politics and emotions of the drama through their choreographed group movements around the stage.

This is to a great extent a plot-summary production, with the strengths and limitations of one that prioritises clarity over depth and poetry. Combined with Simon Russell Beale moving and thought-provoking central performance, it makes for a satisfying, if not overwhelming, experience.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Richard II - Almeida Theatre 2018  
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