I need to be a bit careful here to separate my impressions of the actual show from the (entirely serendipitous, I am not that good at planning) Q&A session with some of the cast and the Assistant Director afterwards, in terms of what I took away from what they did.*
The most important thing to note is that this production is stripped back – in almost every sense. A neat 100 minute running time (no interval) was just the start – the actors performed in a square box, riveted metal, which didn’t even have a single door (they all stayed on stage the whole time), the only props were some six or so buckets (about which more later), the costumes were simple shirts and trousers in uniformly dark colours, and there was little (but not quite nothing) in the way of sound and lighting effects.
So all that was left was a story about the passing of power, told by a small company of only 8 people. It wasn’t really a history play – much of the politics of the period was removed, and characters were combined to become archetypes rather than genuine historical figures. Or they were uneasily resurrected – Gaunt became the visitor who tells the imprisoned Richard so gleefully of Bolingbroke’s coronation, which worked better than you might think. And what you were left with, for the most part, was a swirling, semi-anonymous mass of lords whose shifting allegiance was physically demonstrated by their ebb and flow through the space and their very hands-on relationships with each other. I can’t imagine the rehearsal process but I think it must have been incredibly intense to build the bonds that sustained that kind of action.
The play opened with Richard’s speech from his cell** – Simon Russell Beale standing alone in a spotlight talking about peopling “this little world” with his thoughts and imagining himself king’d again, and unking’d. This speech led straightforwardly to the idea that the audience was Richard’s mind’s eye, that all the action took place in the recollection of a damaged man, and this was the reason patterns of behaviour seemed to repeat themselves (those scenes of treachery and throwing down gages, and of course the first time is tragedy and the second time is most definitely farce!) It also made it totally reasonable for the 57-year-old Simon Russell Beale to play a king who died at the age of 33***.
In terms of the rest of cast, the stand outs for me were Robin Weaver’s aggressive, thrusting Northumberland, Natalie Klamar’s vacillating Carlisle – a wonderful barometer for the mood of the court as a whole, and John Mackay’s conflicted uncle York (“grace me no grace nor uncle me no uncle was particularly fine). I couldn’t quite get my head around Lee Bill’s Bolingbroke, though. He came across, to me at least, as nervy and rather beige – certainly lacking in the sort of personal magnetism Simon Russell Beale has in spades. I really was not sure why everyone was following him. And of course this is where the set doesn’t help – there’s nothing to invest anyone with the trappings of power or wealth, so it’s not clear what any of this is for (what is the value of the crown when all it is, is that hollow circle and no more power or wealth). And the just cause of Bolingbroke’s annoyance with Richard II (when Richard claims all of his father’s wealth), the threat to the whole court, is gone. But that sort of enhances the pathetic core of the action – death, misery, treason, just squabbling over a metal hat.
Thinking about the death, it’s a play that has a surprisingly large death count for a history play, rather than an overt tragedy****. This production was a literal bloodbath. Those buckets I mentioned earlier? They are helpfully labelled things like “blood” and “water” and every one ended up strewn across the stage, starting with Bagot and Bushy (or possibly Green)*****. Saskia Reeves was so absolutely drenched that she managed to coat at least one other member of the cast who wasn’t in the scene, an early foretaste of the way treason seemed to spread like contagion. And it gave Martins Imhangbe a bad start as Aumerle, being already bloodstained. Poor Simon Russell Beale ended up absolutely covered in everything – since they cut the character of the Queen, among others, the famous gardeners’ scene was played to Richard and they covered him in soil and water. A right sorry state he was in.
Luckily he didn’t have to endure it long, thanks to the lickety-split speed of the production – not only the cuts but also the speed at which the speeches were delivered. I don’t think I have ever heard a John of Gaunt get through the “scepter’d isle” speech as quickly as Joseph Mydell did. To be fair, this was in no way to the detriment of audibility or comprehension, and lent a much more modern and conversational air to the whole production, in keeping with the stripped back staging. It was fresh, and surprisingly funny!
* I may review the Q&A – especially the Q portion – if I am feeling particularly waspish.
** Yes, another play that started at or near the end – but this sort of made sense.
*** SRB was quite funny about this in the Q&A – basically saying he thought he’d missed his chance to play the role and was delighted to be asked to do it – there was no way he was going to tur it down!
**** So yes the title character usually ends at the end of both, and if you counted the battles the death counts in histories would sky rocket, but you know what I mean!
***** I have never been able to remember which of these flatterers is which, and the way the cast kept swapping roles didn’t help. Also, I swear they referred to everyone by name much less than in the original text – again, I think a deliberate choice as the Q&A referenced the famous spoof scene with the “Westmoreland, go thou to Wessex, While you Wessex, go to Bristol, And you Bristol go to Essex” monologue which I actually saw performed long before I ever saw Richard II.