Saturday, August 29, 2015

RICHARD II at the Globe Theatre - non-Cumberbatch Shakespeare

You would never know it from the press hype surrounding Benedict Cumberbatch's HAMLET but there is another vacillating royal in serious trouble on the London stage and we were lucky to see it last week.

RICHARD II is the latest production in the Globe Theatre's 2015 season based around the themes of Justice and Mercy, qualities that are singularly lacking in the story of the downfall of the vain, misguided Plantagenet King who learned too late that it's more important to be human than majestic.

Charles Edwards brought his upper-class panache to the role of Richard: by turns pampered, remote, haughty and witty, he sailed through the first act on an air of privilege, uncaring of the turmoil he was creating in his wake among his lords and barons, sure in his knowledge that as an anointed King he was impervious to complaint.

However when Richard II tires of the dispute between Henry of Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray and banishes them both abroad he sets off a chain of events which swiftly leads to disaster.  Caring little for the angry remonstrations of Bolingbroke's dying father John of Gaunt, Richard seizes his property and goods to pay for his war with the Irish and in doing so deprives Bolingbroke of his legacy.  The King returns from Ireland to discover that Bolingbroke has returned from exile and rallied an army while his own followers have vanished.

Up until this point Richard has been fairly unlikeable but his realisation that his destiny is now uncertain leads him through various stages of self-pitying anger, despair, and finally to a wisdom that is touching in it's resignation.  Up until the arrival back on English shores, the only moment of real poetry has been John of Gaunt's denunciation of Richard, brooding on what his reign has done to "This sceptre'd isle".  William Gaunt in the small but haunting role of John of Gaunt was excellent, using up the last of his energy to rain down anger on Richard's reign.

But with Richard's growing realisation of his inadequacy, Shakespeare ups the ante and Richard finds his poetic voice, in particular when he invites his admirers "let us sit upon the ground and talk about the death of kings".  Two excellent scenes follow where Richard and Bolingbroke confront each other, first at Flint Castle where Richard attempts to face down his enemy but eventually capitulates to fate and the following scene at Westminster Hall where Richard is called before the council to abdicate.

This magnificent confrontation - where vacillating Richard literally makes Bolingbroke pull the crown from his grasp and then ruminates on the transition from King to man - saw Edwards at his finest and indeed, his final scene was shot through with a noble pathos.

David Sturzaker also upped his game as Bolingbroke in his scenes with Edwards although he at times felt a bit lightweight to play such an important main role.  There was very good support from William Chubb as the honest Duke of York, Richard Katz as both the murderous Exton and the Queen's head gardener and Sarah Woodward as the Duchess of York.  However her major scene at the end where she begs Bolingbroke to spare the life of her traitorous son while her husband the Duke demands his son's death was played almost as slapstick and threw the tone off dramatically.

Overall, Simon Godwin's production was very enjoyable although some of the cast were a bit lightweight and the first act seemed to feature one too many scenes of the rebellious lords sweeping on to only sweep off again after a few minutes.  Despite this I enjoyed it more than the Kevin Spacey/Old Vic production from 2005.

Where the production did score well was with Paul Wills set of cracked and peeling shining gold paint.  As soon as I saw it I was reminded of the famous portrait of the ill-fated King in Westminster Abbey.

No comments: