The result here is that this is more the Comedy of Richard II than the Tragedy of Richard II. There is an unseemly pursuit of laughter – characterisations are extreme, language is tossed aside in favour of quick laughs and the deeper, darker side of text and situation is left largely unconsidered. This is not to say that production is not entertaining – it is – but it is not a production which seeks to achieve anything in particular or which attempts to enliven or illuminate. In rather the same way as an accomplished school performance can leave you satisfied, so too does this production. It’s a great introductory point; if this is your first taste of Shakespeare, you won’t be disappointed. But if you come looking for insight or new perspectives, you will find none.
Of all the cast, it is the gifted Susannah Fielding who comes closest to the right style of acting. She really is a tremendous performer, winning in her winsome style, with a voice as agile as her facial features and just as expressive. She keeps her Mrs Sullen to the naturalistic style Godwin has chosen, but you can feel, just below her gorgeous exterior, that within lies the right style, the right character, the right attitude, desperately wanting to break out of the confines of naturalism and take shape in proper Restoration Comedy mode.
Front and centre, shouldering a Herculean workload of complicated, dense dialogue, is Ralph Fiennes in absolutely cracking form. He has unflagging energy and although he rattles the text at a remarkable speed, he gives full value to each word and makes clear, uncomplicated sense of every passage. He is phenomenal, like a bolt of electricity confined to the stage. Simon Godwin’s stunning production makes Shaw’s play, a philosophical tennis match of volleyed ideas and ideals, burst with wit, innovation and utter delight.