Almeida Theatre, London – until 2 February 2018
Borrowing a technique from American long-form TV drama, The Tragedy of King Richard The Second begins in medias res. The wonderful Simon Russell Beale steps forward, ashen-faced, to deliver the “I have been studying how I may compare/This prison where I live unto the world” speech from Act 5.
Thus giving a strong indication of the tone of the production with a rejigged structure, scenes merged in places, and the slashing of the text to come in under a zippy 100 minutes. The narrative, with its themes of flawed leadership, whispering conspiracy from across the English Channel and a nagging Irish problem, could almost be a metaphor for the present Brexit turmoil.
The problem I have with this production is it seems to be labouring under the weight of directorial concept, with director Joe Hill-Gibbins gazing longingly at the European avant-garde. Staged in Ultz’s doorless industrial sheen design, with snap-to-spotlight effects, accompanied by techno audio effects and a ticking clock – I too often felt that I was trapped in a theatrical microwave oven.
The sight of several buckets containing varying liquids and substances – gives one the Chekhovian gun effect. We just know people are going to get wet – or worse. Yet the sheer stamina of the fine ensemble – onstage for the duration – has to be admired.
Actors hug the walls, huddle in groups, occasionally push a protesting performer downstage on cue, dart around in groups as if ordered by a PE master, and at one point erupt into a full-scale playground style brawl.
Excellent support comes from Leo Bill’s turgid Bolingbroke and Saskia Reeves as Mowbray/Bushy/Duchess of York. And then there is Simon Russell Beale’s Richard. Probably this generation’s finest interpreter of Shakespeare, Russell Beale delivers a masterclass of wit, pathos and unspoken nuance – absolutely dazzling.
The Tragedy of King Richard the Second runs at the Almeida Theatre until February 2 and will be broadcast live to cinemas, in the UK and internationally, in partnership with National Theatre Live, January 15.