REVIEW: Richard II, Arcola Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Richard II at Arcola Theatre
Tim Delap (King Richard) in Richard II. Photo: Robert Workman

Richard II
Arcola Theatre
3 May 2016
4 Stars

When asked to reflect on Shakespeare’s most ‘political’ plays, many of us would say Macbeth and Richard III without a thought. Such is the astonishing influence of House of Cards, whose iterations are both strongly influenced by these political tragedies.
Consequently this ‘new version’ of Richard II, which retains Shakespeare’s text but is set in modern-day Parliament, risks unfavourable comparisons. In fact, it is a very shrewd interpretation. King Richard is a compelling analogue of the most ineffectual politicians; disingenuous, indecisive, and oblivious to their own dreadful PR. Tim Delap depicts the king as competent, confident and charismatic, and his excellent performance does great credit to the allegory. Here Richard’s hubris – the unwavering belief in the divine right of kings – exhibits itself as the by-product of political success. He becomes a one-man party, inured to advice, with an unwavering belief in the veracity of his speech.

Delap’s Richard is also capable of commendable subtlety. His ‘Hollow Crown’ speech – “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground/ And tell sad stories of the death of kings” – acknowledges the “vain conceit” which heralds his downfall, but it is delivered with a steely gaze, as if to say that he will not go down without a fight. The slow, painful realisation that his world is not as he thought, culminating in his submission to Bolingbroke (Hermione Gulliford) – “I find myself a traitor with the rest/For I have given here my soul’s consent/To undeck the pompous body of a king” – is quite heartbreaking, speaking of anger at his naivety, as well as hurt as his betrayal. Coupled with Delap’s resigned delivery of Richard’s swansong – “I have been studying how I may compare/This prison where I live unto the world” – his tragedy is easy to empathise with, which is not guaranteed of such an overtly philosophical character.

Hermione Gulliford’s gender lifted Bolingbroke is very well observed – ambitious, shrewd, but honourable. Her righteous anger – “O, God defend my soul from such deep sin!
Shall I seem crest-fall’n in my father’s sight?” – , in response to Thomas Mowbray’s (David Acton) claim that she is a “most degenerate traitor” is tremendously judged. It speaks of disillusionment as well as humiliation, and supports the notion that she claims the crown for (at least) partially altruistic reasons. Indeed, Richard’s charisma, promoted in comparison to various interpretations of the character, highlights the political savvy required for Bolingbroke to claim the crown. As a plain-speaking foil to Richard, she invites a dialogue about politicians’ rhetoric; her trustworthiness is not just a by-product of competence, but of a common touch that evades her rival.

Richard II at Arcola Theatre
Natasha Bain (Northumberland), Hermione Gulliford (Bolingbroke), David Acton (York), Eleanor de Bohun (Ross), Tim Delap (King Richard) and Roland Oliver (Bishop of Carlisle) in Richard II. Photo: Robert Workman

The production contains a host of strong supporting performances. These include Roland Oliver’s pious and passionate Bishop of Carlisle, Natasha Bain’s affecting Queen Isabel, and Hayden Wood’s zealous Bagot, who adopts Exton’s mantle in the final scenes. As Thomas Mowbray, David Acton chews the scenery with aplomb – though his York, distinguished by a coat and a palsied arm, is perhaps too similar in speech. Oliver’s John of Gaunt, though convincing as an elder statesman, is occasionally a tad fraught, whilst Joseph Adelakun, though an excellent Aumerle, is a little understated as Bushey. Eleanor Cox is a quite terrific Eleanor de Bohun, ably facilitating the political allegory via her depiction as an eager broadcaster.

The production’s strongest support is found in its simple but highly effective set. Jack Gamble and Quentin Beroud, who adapted and directed this production, describe Richard’s power and insecurities as “[finding] expression in his suit, smiles and soundbites”. The rather sparse set draws attention to Richard’s crisp suit and garish blue tie, a more striking representation of his rule than his barely furnished office. In turn, the power of media and PR is explored via three televisions, located in two corners of the stage and above Richard’s desk. Key speeches are played out like parliamentary debates, with an off-stage camera filming the speakers and projecting the footage on each screen in real time. Additionally, news bulletins – ‘Mowbray did plot Gloucester’s death – shock accusation in live debate!’ – sensationalise the growing tragedy, projecting the plot in digestible chunks which do not offer full justice to the facts – a delightful nuance.

This is a thought-provoking production, a parable for 21st Century politics that also offers unusual insights into the characters of Richard and Bolingbroke. Tim Delap’s and Hermione Gulliford’s excellent performances are complimented by a very solid supporting cast, and an inventive set that renders Westminster as a tragic soap opera, without drawing unfavourable comparisons to House of Cards.

Richard II runs at the Arcola Theatre until 7 May 2016.

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