Almeida Theatre, London – until 2 February 2018
The clue is in the paper hat, worn by a dour-faced Simon Russell Beale on the programme cover. This is not stately, sacred, shockingly regicidal Shakespeareana. This is a brawl, a nasty coup against a hopeless king, a howl of rage at what fools, in power politics, these mortals be.
I was curious as to what the iconoclastic director Joe Hill-Gibbins would do with Shakespeare’s most lyrically beautiful history play: his Edward II did not thrill, and the sex-dolls in Measure for Measure were yawny too. But he has done some cracking productions. And if you cast Simon Russell Beale at the centre, the greatest of contemporary actors, it will always be interesting. He was surprise casting: after Lear and Prospero, an odd and unusually older choice. The last two memorable Richard IIs have been in the wispier, more glamorously youthful genre to go with the lyricism and the monarch’s petulant self-pitying tendency to “sit on the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings”.
David Tennant made him a rock star: a preening vanity, long tresses flowing down his silk-robed back, with all the epicene, arrogant eloquence of a Russell Brand. Eddie Redmayne’s still, sad dignity raised a tear of pitiful contempt, slender and hopeless from the start. But this is different. Flawed though he is, this King has a deep soul. And for all the bleak empty stage and the fire-buckets full of red paint, earth and water to be gradually tipped over our hero, the raucous setting does reveal something new about a play I have loved for decades.
Leo Bill is the usurper Bolingbroke throughout, an unusually weak and self-protective one, but the other six cast members male and female play all the nobles, courtiers and bishops and the two gardeners. Who are not humble in the background as usual, discussing apricots and the state of the country, but viciously taunting and soiling the failing King.
The ensemble scuttle around ratlike, gang up in corners, fight amongst themselves and are encouraged by the director to gabble their lines at top speed so as to be almost insultingly incomprehensible. John of Gaunt’s earth-realm-England speech is given reasonable space; mostly, though, it is rattling, meaningless, gabbly politics. Just the kind we are used to. And that gives extra weight to central figure. Russell Beale’s intelligent perfection of mood and diction gives us an old lion at bay and accord full weight to the King’s tragedy of weakness, hubris, indecision and loss.
It’ll be too rufty-tufty and truncated a show for traditionalists, this, but I sort of liked it. Though I fear for Simon Russell Beale, who is too precious a national asset to be rudely caked with mud and paint and almost trodden on by scampering younglings eight times a week till Candlemas…
box office almeida.co.uk to 2 Feb