Mark Ludmon reviews The Tragedy of King Richard the Second at the Almeida Theatre starring Simon Russell Beale
Towards the end of Richard II, the dethroned king meditates from his Pontefract Castle cell, “I have been studying how I may compare this prison where I live unto the world”. This scene opens Joe Hill-Gibbins’s ambitious new take on Shakespeare’s history play, which boldly smashes the play down to a fast and furious 100 minutes and just eight actors. This line appears to underline the concept of the production on a stage resembling a giant windowless, doorless prison cell, made up of large grey riveted panels – a typically striking design by Ultz.
The cast, dressed in T-shirts and sweatshirts, tear around and bounce off the walls, telling the story of the usurpation of Richard by Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, like prisoners trapped with nothing to do but re-enact a well-rehearsed ritual. It matches the themes of Shakespeare’s play which explores how power and titles are just roles we play. Richard has gained the right to the part of king through inheritance and divine right but his weakness and poor decision-making lead to Bolingbroke challenging this notion by championing the importance of words and deeds. With the theatricality of the play exposed, they are just men and women who, to paraphrase Macbeth, strut and fret upon the stage in roles that signify nothing.
In this abridged and re-ordered version, where nobody can get off stage, the drama becomes a clear one-on-one power struggle between Richard and his cousin Henry. As the other six actors repeatedly separate and re-group behind the two men, it has a visceral physicality. Buckets of blood, dirt and water are thrown around, turning the stage into a chaotic mess that mirrors the anarchy created by the conflict over the crown – here, a paper-like party hat with a silly flimsiness that belies the importance placed on it by the characters.
The drama is constantly disrupted by noise, from loud ticking, drumming and mike misfeeds, under sound designer Peter Rice, through to clapping, shouting and banging. Anyone expecting a respectful space for the poetry to shine will be disappointed although the iconoclastic direction contrasts with sensitive, lucid delivery of Shakespeare’s blank verse, especially by Simon Russell Beale as Richard and Leo Bill as Bolingbroke.
If Hill-Gibbins’s intention is to disrupt and undermine the original play, he has succeeded. The fast-paced action, unsettling soundscape and other distractions often overwhelm the language and plot although it gains more clarity towards the end. However, the performances themselves are excellent, led masterfully by Russell Beale and Bill and with good work by Martin Imhangbe, Natalie Klamar, John Mackay, Joseph Mydell, Saskia Reeves and Robin Weaver. There is no denying that the staging is striking and unforgettable but too much is lost to the bold dramaturgical concept.
Running to 2 February 2019