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The Theatreguide.London Reviews

Richard II Archive

For the Archive we file reviews of several London productions of Shakespeare's Richard II together. Scroll down for the one you want, compare or just browse.

RSC 2001 - Old Vic 2005 - RSC 2008 - Donmar 2011 - RSC 2013 - Almeida 2018

Richard II 
The Pit, Spring 2001

Steven Pimlott's exciting production for the Royal Shakespeare Company proves once again that the most difficult Shakespeare plays become theatrically alive and crystal clear in the right hands. What in other stagings has been obscure and distant is real, human and contemporary in fascinating new ways.

Shakespeare's Richard is a weak and self-indulgent king who seizes the land of his banished cousin Henry Bolingbroke. When Henry returns with an army to claim his inheritance, he somehow ends up taking the throne as well.

Shakespeare never makes clear just when Henry's goal changes, nor why Richard surrenders so easily, leaving these for the actors to make clear. And Pimlott and his cast have found new and totally believable answers.

In this modern dress production Samuel West plays Richard as a callow young Prince of the City. He and his cronies resemble today's City high-fliers and dot-com millionaires, casually confident in their golden indestructibility.

When he returns from his Irish wars to discover that everyone has deserted him for Henry, the truth of his vulnerability and mortality hits him with a shock from which he never recovers.

West beautifully shows the trauma and the post-traumatic depression that gives Richard an exaggerated but psychologically true sense of helplessness and impotence.

Meanwhile, David Troughton, whose bluff sergeant-major of a Henry has honestly just wanted his own lands back, is practical enough not to refuse a gift when it is offered him, unexpected as it may be.

These very believable characterizations reinvigorate and illuminate the play in theatrically thrilling ways. The formal abdication scene becomes a public event, with Henry trying to establish some validity for his claim, and Richard, in his personal suffering, refusing to play by the script.

West gives Richard's emotional journey real power, from blind confidence, to despair, to understanding and the beginnings of acceptance, and in the process becomes the play's moral and emotional core. And Troughton makes very real the play's hints that he is not the simple victor, and that winning the crown will be as much a burden and emotional trauma for him as losing it was for Richard.

In a strong supporting cast David Killock plays the Duke of York as an elder statesman whose veneer of ethical authority barely covers his sensitivity to which way the wind is blowing, while Christopher Saul is the more openly slimy politician Northumberland.

Paul Greenwood doubles as a dignified Mowbray and an authoritatively moral Bishop of Carlisle. In a witty bit of doubling, the actors who played Richard's cronies in the early scenes play his murderers at the end.

The RSC has taken on the challenge of Shakespeare's entire eight-play historical cycle this season. If the others are anywhere as powerful and accessible as this first episode, it may prove to be a once-in-a-lifetime theatrical glory.

Gerald Berkowitz


Richard II
Old Vic Theatre Autumn 2005

Trevor Nunn directs Kevin Spacey in Shakespeare, and the result is neither the best nor the worst Richard II I've ever seen.

There's about as much reason to skip it as to go, with perhaps Spacey's undoubted star quality just tipping it over into the positive.

A quick reminder: this is the one in which King Richard banishes his cousin Henry and seizes his lands. Henry returns with an army to get his own back, but somehow (Shakespeare is deliberately vague about this) winds up seizing the throne as well, becoming Henry IV.

Kevin Spacey's programme biography doesn't list any previous experience with Shakespeare, so it is worth noting that he handles the verse remarkably well. He does tend to orate and speechify rather than converse, but then so does his character, so the not-quite-naturalistic style doesn't rankle too much.

Unfortunately almost everyone else in the cast also tends to recite rather than talk. When everybody in a play does anything the same way, it's a directorial choice, and I'm inclined to think Trevor Nunn has erred here.

For better or worse, British audiences have come to expect their Shakespeare to sound more conversational and natural - that revolution in his days as head of the RSC may prove Peter Hall's greatest legacy - and recitation, however well done, inevitably becomes meaningless gabble.

The biggest weakness of this production is a dispassionate lifelessness, and the fact that for too much of its three hour length everyone is just statically reciting at each other is a big part of that problem.

Despite a modern dress design in which all the more public scenes are turned into TV soundbites on large screens, the production is not visually interesting either. And so, with little to look at and characters whose public masks and oratorical styles we aren't invited past, we remain too separate from the story and people for the play to come alive.

Of course there are moments that work. Spacey's Richard comes very much alive in the grief of his forced abdication. The intense passion comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere, but for the moment we see a real person in real pain.

While Ben Miles' Henry remains an enigma throughout, Oliver Cotton's cold-blooded power politician Northumberland is chillingly real and Peter Eyre's out-of-his-depth nice-old-guy York generates some sympathy.

Given the artificial and oratorical style Trevor Nunn has chosen, it is striking that the most successful scenes are two comic ones that Shakespeare clearly intended as stylistic contrasts to the rest. The one in which the York family trip over each other trying to get to Henry with their conflicting petitions is played as pure farce, while the brief encounter between the imprisoned Richard and a loyal servant has a lightly comic warmth sorely lacking elsewhere.

(Oh, and just because nobody else has mentioned it, can I assure Trevor Nunn that I got his musical joke?  The usurper's coronation is accompanied ironically with Aaron Copeland's Fanfare For The Common Man.)

Everyone in this play (The supporting cast is full of RSC and NT veterans) has been better elsewhere, and the play itself has been done better.

Still, you could do worse, so if you're a dedicated Kevin Spacey fan or can't wait around for another Richard II to come along, here this is.

Gerald Berkowitz

Richard II
Roundhouse Spring 2008

Michael Boyd's production serves as an adequate introduction to the RSC's complete cycle of Shakespeare's eight Richard-Henries-Richard history plays. But director and cast are somewhat less successful in finding depth or interest within this first play.

The story - weak and unpopular King Richard banishes his cousin Henry and seizes his lands. When Henry returns for what is his, he gathers so much support that he ends up taking the crown as Henry IV. In Shakespeare's eyes this crime generates the next 150 years of tumultuous English history until peace and order are restored with the Tudor Henry VII (not incidentally, grandfather of the reigning Queen).

(Actually, there is an earlier crime - before the opening of this play, Richard ordered or at least allowed the murder of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, and director Boyd underlines all references to that event as the generator of all that follows.)

This production tells the story clearly enough, but does little to make it come alive by developing believable and emotionally involving personalities for the principal characters, in one case going too far, in the other not far enough.

Shakespeare says that Richard is self-indulgent and makes him somewhat self-dramatising. But Jonathan Slinger has been directed (or allowed) to play him as a flaming queen. He enters looking and acting like Julian Clary in a Harpo Marx wig, and his only evolution (once the wig disappears) is to resemble the over-the-top mime artist Lindsay Kemp.

Just about every opportunity the play offers for Richard to grow, show some depth or attract our sympathy is missed or immediately undercut by camping it up. The one exception is the abdication scene, where Slinger's Richard does manage to hold the moral high ground, and our sympathy, for more than a few moments.

Clive Wood's Henry, on the other hand, is underplayed and under-characterised to the point of near-invisibility. A central question of the play is how early Henry has his eye on the crown, and differing decisions on that point can colour whole scenes differently. But Wood's Henry never actually seems to make the decision.

The most that can be said of him is that he is intelligent enough to realise that, once virtually everyone in England has rallied around him, a de factorevolution has already happened and he would be foolish not to ride along with it. (Jonathan Slinger makes Richard equally aware of the realpolitik, one of the strengths that makes his abdication scene work.)

But while that is a legitimate interpretation, it is not a particularly dramatic one, making Henry an entirely passive figure. We may have to wait for the next plays in the cycle to see if that sense of Henry falling into kingship almost by accident is developed further.

There are nice performances by Roger Watkins as John of Gaunt and Richard Cordery as York, both playing the older men with more energy and anger than they usually get.

No one else in the cast registers, and there are a couple of very silly staging effects - a duel on imaginary flying horses and a piano that descends from the flies, complete with pianist, only to rise up again moments later.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Richard II
Donmar Theatre  Winter 2011-2012

Director Michael Grandage and actor Eddie Redmayne have found some intriguing new colours in the character of Shakespeare's weak king, in a production that is otherwise solid but not especially inspired. 

Reminder: Richard banishes his cousin Bolingbroke and seizes his inheritance. Returning to claim what is his, Bolingbroke winds up taking the crown as well, becoming Henry IV. 

The key to the play is Richard's personality, frequently seen as weak, profligate and self-dramatising; the central irony of the play is that while Richard is God's anointed king, Henry is actually the better man for the job. There is no question that Richard has Divine Right on his side; the problem is that he relies a bit too much on that.

Redmayne's king has the revealing habit of half-consciously posing in the image of medieval icons, betraying his sense of himself as more than merely human. He also plays every moment as a conscious public scene, eyes and ears alert to the effect he is having on others and clearly enjoying his own performance. 

Redmayne actually carries that portrait a step further by giving Richard the air of a precocious little boy performing for grown-ups and lapping up their adulation and, when things turn against him, suggesting a self-pitying and petulant child confused that this new act doesn't generate sympathy the way the old one produced applause. 

The idea of Richard as arrested in his emotional and psychological (though not intellectual) development, reacting like a child to the highs and lows of his adventure, is actually quite satisfying as an explanation for both character and plot developments. 

There are attractive performances around Redmayne, notably Andrew Buchan's almost thuggish no-nonsense Bolingbroke and Ron Cook's York, straining to keep up with what's going on without lapsing, as some Yorks do, into Polonius-like foolishness. But they, and everything else about the production, are journeyman-solid rather than inspired. 

My touchstones for productions of this play are how they answer two questions Shakespeare keeps tantalisingly ambiguous, leaving the opportunity for inventive and convincing characterisations: at what point does Bolingbroke's goal shift from his inheritance to the crown, and when (and why) does Richard give up and decide to abdicate before actually being asked. 

The first is never answered here. Buchan's Bolingbroke never seems intent on the crown, and just accepts it without visible surprise or satisfaction when it is offered. The second the moment Richard gives up seems to come much earlier than usual, as Redmayne plays Richard's brief despair on his return from Ireland (the 'Hollow Crown' speech) with far more finality than I've seen it before.

Those who don't know the play will be able to follow it and understand Richard, if not everyone else around him. Those who know the play will have to be satisfied with the central performance as the only fresh touch.

Gerald Berkowitz

Richard II
Barbican Theatre  Winter 2013-2014

A magnetic central figure, several strong supporting performances and a beautiful visual setting the RSC's welcome return to the Barbican is as fine a production of Richard II as you could hope for. 

And since this play, which can in less adept hands be static and talky, is not normally one I'd recommend to Shakespeare neophytes, the fact that a TV star is drawing them in to see this very fine version means that there's a greater chance of their catching the Shakespeare bug and going on to see others. 

On Stephen Brimson Lewis's beautiful set, which makes full use of the Barbican's stage machinery without overpowering the production, director Gregory Doran makes Richard II what lesser directors can't always, the story of a shallow man gaining depth through unhappiness. 

Shakespeare introduces Richard as more than a bit of a show-off, and David Tennant, long tresses flowing, enters the play always 'on', posing with the skill of a model who knows his best side and revelling in the mellifluous sound of his own voice (which Tennant has clearly modelled on Noel Coward with touches of Peter Ustinov).

It is not until the Hollow Crown speech almost halfway through the play that this Richard feels his first real emotion, and Tennant has him sober up very quickly. Though he'll have occasional relapses into self-dramatising self-pity throughout the play, Tennant makes him clear-headed and surprisingly able to cope with what he sees most of the time. 

And when what he sees is that Nigel Lindsay's rebellious Bolingbroke is the de facto king the moment he has the military advantage, Tennant's Richard has the resources to seize and hold the moral high ground.

He turns his abdication into a formal public event designed to shame the usurper even as it acknowledges his victory, and it is Richard who survives that scene with the greater depth and dignity. 

Nigel Lindsay makes Bolingbroke a thug who can be oily and manipulative, as with the Duke of York, but who thinks only in terms of power, not morality. Though Shakespeare has him insist that he's not after the crown, Lindsay is issuing orders and acting like a king-in-all-but-name almost from the moment of his return, and if Tennant's Richard does shame him, he is not the sort of man to feel more than fleeting embarrassment. 

Jane Lapotaire is moving as the grieving Duchess of Gloucester and Michael Pennington as a passionate and courageous John of Gaunt, and Oliver Rix does more with Aumerle than I've seen before.

But it is that old smoothie Oliver Ford Davies who (as he almost always does) repeatedly steals scenes by finding unexpected touches of humour and humanity in a fully rounded and sympathetic Duke of York.

Gerald Berkowitz

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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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Reviews - Richard II - 2001-2018
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