‘Unmissable if you’re a Simon Russell Beale fan’: THE TRAGEDY OF KING RICHARD THE SECOND – Almeida Theatre ★★★

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Almeida Theatre, London – until 2 February 2019

Much as I admire Rupert Goold, I have to admit that if it weren’t for Simon Russell Beale, I’m not sure I’d have stayed the course with Joe Hill-Gibbins’ latest excursion into Shakespeare.

Hill-Gibbins, something of a protégé of the last Young Vic regime under David Lan, produced a couple of Shakespeares at the Young Vic – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Measure for Measure that even then left me more than a little baffled.

The Hill-Gibbins treatment now comes to the Almeida and clearly fits in nicely with the venue’s current trend for modish, modernist deconstruction, severe editing and rushing through lines as if terrified audiences will lose the will to live – or more importantly, concentration if allowed to linger too long over the words and extended narrative.

That is perhaps being a little too trivial. The Almeida’s extensive programme notes delve deeply into the whys and wherefores of leadership and belief systems. I’m tempted to say that you could as well buy the programme, take it home and read it and get as much from the production as you will watching its one hour and 40 minutes duration.

But that would be to miss out on Russell Beale’s Richard which, counter-intuitively, and although played as a dress rehearsal for King Lear (which he played notably at the National Theatre only recently), would be a shame. Russell Beale who could draw sympathy from the reading of a telephone book were such a thing still in existence, enhances Richard’s already self-pity laden persona and makes it something at once tragic and furious.

The character of Richard has some of the most limpid, resonant speeches on kingship in the Shakespeare oeuvre – nowhere more so than in the play’s second half and his enforced abdication of the crown to Bolingbroke.

Hill-Gibbins piles on the humiliation with buckets of water, earth and dust thrown at Richard, in case you miss the point. Still, Russell Beale’s delivery of text rises above the hammer blows of conceptual theatre with which Hill-Gibbins burdens his production.

The programme also contains heartfelt essays from prisoners interred in solitary consignment over decades. Harrowing in the extreme, barbarous in nature, this production clearly takes its cue from such terrible ordeals in terms of Richard’s psychological journey.

Ultz’s clever design too feeds into the idea, presenting a simple grey square box set studded with panels as if resembling a prison or armour or perhaps even what were once called the padded cells of lunatic asylums.

© Marc Brenner, Simon Russell Beale as Richard II in final moments of kingship berating the others, lords and bystanders – `conveyers’, he calls them…

Within this confined space, Russell Beale leads a small band of `other characters’ who include his usurper, Leo Bill’s Bolingbroke and the others – Mowbray, Bushy, Green, Northumberland, York – warring lords who, I suppose, Hill Gibbins wanting to point up their parallels with our warring politicians in Westminster – shout and scream with childish petulance.

There seems a particular penchant, chez the Almeida and elsewhere to scramble over words. Here, if you didn’t know the play, you might wonder – apart from Russell Beale who might be in another production altogether given the difference in textual delivery – who on earth and what on earth was going on. Heaven forfend time should be taken capturing detail or nuance.

© Marc Brenner, Simon Russell Beale and Leo Bill. Richard and Bolingbroke. Here, take the crown, no, wait a minute, no…

Against the odds, a couple of moments do emerge with clarity: Richard’s renunciation to Bolingbroke, Bill and Russell Beale, heads pressed closely together, Russell Beale spitting out the words, `Convey! Conveyers are you all, that rise thus nimbly by a true king’s fall.’ And the regularly favourite scene, almost a farce, of the Yorks, Duke and Duchess, trying to save their son, Aumerle, from the block after discovery of his `treason.’

But in all good faith, I was hard pressed to reconcile the ideas taken from the programme regarding `leadership’ – good and bad – and `action man’ versus dissolute romantic and believer of his divine right to rule from this production. Russell Beale has such stature on stage that beside him, Leo Bill’s Bolingbroke cuts an impetuous, shouty, but subordinate figure.

All very strange. Joseph Mydell adds gravitas as Gaunt whilst fine actors such as Saskia Reeves, John Mackay, Robin Weaver with Martins Imhangbe and Natalie Klamar clamber and rush around the stage with buckets of red paint and water,  to diminishing effect.

Unmissable if you’re a Simon Russell Beale fan. For the rest, just baffling.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second
by William Shakespeare

Cast:
King Richard the Second: Simon Russell Beale
Bolingbroke: Leo Bill
Bagot/Aumerle: Martins Imhangbe
Carlisle: Natalie Klamar
York: John Mackay
Gaunt/Willoughby: Joseph Mydell
Mowbray/Bushy/Green/Duchess of York: Saskia Reeves
Northumberland: Robin Weaver

Direction: Joe Hill-Gibbins
Design: Ultz
Light: James Farncombe
Sound: Peter Rice
Dramaturg: Jeff James
Casting: Ginny Schiller CDG
Costume Supervisor: Claire Wardroper
Associate Designer: Charlotte Espiner
Resident Director: Lucy Wray

First perf of this revival of The Tragedy of Richard the Second at Almeida Theatre, Dec 10, 2018; runs to Feb 2, 2019.

Review published on this site, Jane 3, 2019

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Carole Woddis on RssCarole Woddis on Twitter
Carole Woddis
Carole Woddis has been a theatre journalist and critic for over 30 years. She was London reviewer and feature writer for Glasgow’s The Herald for 12 years and for many other newspapers and magazines. She now review for websites including The Arts Desk, Reviews Gate and London Grip and blogs independently at woddisreviews.org.uk. Carole is also the author of: The Bloomsbury Theatre Guide with Trevor T Griffiths; a collection of interviews with actresses, Sheer Bloody Magic (Virago), and Faber & Faber’s Pocket Guide to 20th Century Drama with Stephen Unwin. For ten years, she was a Visiting Tutor in Journalism at Goldsmiths College and for three years with City University. Earlier in her career, she worked with the RSC, National Theatre, Round House and Royal Ballet as a publicist and as an administrator for other theatre and dance organisations.
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Carole Woddis on RssCarole Woddis on Twitter
Carole Woddis
Carole Woddis has been a theatre journalist and critic for over 30 years. She was London reviewer and feature writer for Glasgow’s The Herald for 12 years and for many other newspapers and magazines. She now review for websites including The Arts Desk, Reviews Gate and London Grip and blogs independently at woddisreviews.org.uk. Carole is also the author of: The Bloomsbury Theatre Guide with Trevor T Griffiths; a collection of interviews with actresses, Sheer Bloody Magic (Virago), and Faber & Faber’s Pocket Guide to 20th Century Drama with Stephen Unwin. For ten years, she was a Visiting Tutor in Journalism at Goldsmiths College and for three years with City University. Earlier in her career, she worked with the RSC, National Theatre, Round House and Royal Ballet as a publicist and as an administrator for other theatre and dance organisations.

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