The Tragedy of King Richard the Second by William Shakespeare
Almeida Theatre / directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins
Seen on January 7, 2019
Simon Russell Beale’s towering performance as Richard II is one of the few redeeming qualities of this production that pretends to be smart but ends up being unimaginative and dull. Joe Hill-Gibbins has taken one of Shakespeare’s most lyrically shattering histories and attempted to turn it into a bare-bones, decontextualized parable of political power grabbing. The set is an empty, industrial-looking interior with grey walls and no exits, and the cast are trapped in it throughout the intermissionless run. All are dressed in overly casual, contemporary clothes, and the whole thing looks (and feels) as though it were a hasty rehearsal happening in a small room. There are, of course, no props—besides a number of buckets containing blood, water, and dirt, which get thrown over the dying characters, as well as the degraded and deposed Richard. In a production that lacks spirit and thoughtful blocking, these moments of heightened physicality and force are particularly impactful, and their visual imprint on the set, which accumulates slowly but surely, makes for a positively disturbing spectacle. It is, however, highly questionable whether Peter Rice’s digitally rhythmic sounds, which rise up every now and then, and James Farncombe’s imperceptibly changing lights add anything of substance to this dry land of a stage.
Richard II has a fascinatingly gripping story and many scenes of poetic grandeur, but this production somehow manages to deaden what is alive even on the page: it not only forfeits narrative clarity by making us blind to the scenic structure of the play, but also disserves the play’s characters with doublings that lack corresponding changes in costumes or delivery (or, well, characterization). Further, even actors with single characters (most notably Leo Bill as Bolingbroke) display inconsistencies in their registers of acting, gradually turning their backs to the very idea of a unified dramatic character. Much of this feels somewhat “alienated” à la Brecht, but in a way that is neither satisfactory nor, I think, intentional. With its awkwardly uneven pace, substantially pared-down text, and kinetically constricted staging, this Richard II crawls to its tragic conclusion only with some pushing.
And for that pushing most of the credit should go to the remarkable Beale, who brings an effervescent clarity to Richard. His performance is intense, but in a way that is often intelligently subdued, and his physicality is always full of surprises. He is, in other words, the dose of life-saving medicine that runs through the veins of this frail and perplexed production. Uttered by him, the play’s most extraordinary passages of poetry soar to great heights, and his is the power that brings into line the rest of the cast from time to time. One cannot help but think how unendurable all of this would have been without Beale, and how wondrous it would be to have a masterful production of this play with him in it.