The Theatreguide.London Review
Almeida Theatre Winter 2018-2019
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
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.
a result the sometimes convoluted story
is always easy to follow, which is an accomplishment in itself.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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