Flooded with royal self knowledge
The Tragedy of King Richard The Second Almeida ★★★★✩
TWO OF the most memorable productions of 2018 can be seen at the beginning of 2019. In each is buried a fleeting moment of theatrical gold. So fleeting, in fact, that it is quite possible to miss them. And that is assuming they survive the finessing that happens during a show’s run after it opens.
But assuming they do survive, these moments have in common not just the same author — Shakespeare — but actors in complete command of the psychological transition made by their eponymous characters. At Shakespeare’s Globe the moment is one of realisation, when Paul Ready’s Macbeth finally understands the true meaning of the witches’ riddle — not a guarantee of his survival after all, but a prophecy about his death. In this marvellous, wordless moment Ready hangs his head in wry recognition at the limits of his own imagination.
Meanwhile, at the Almeida, Simon Russell Beale as Richard II has his own moment of self knowledge. The big idea behind Joe Hill-Gibbins’s pareddown, modern dress production is that it is set entirely in Richard’s cell which normal productions wouldn’t get to until the third act. But in this iron, windowless cell (designed by Ultz) is where things begin and end.
Beale launches the play with the lines “I have been studying how I may compare this prison unto the world”, adding how his thoughts “people this little world”. And so they come. During the following 100 uninterrupted minutes the plot unspools like a series of memories, establishing that the action is set not so much set in a prison but in the deposed King’s head. The cost of a kingdom being divided is measured out in spilled buckets — literally, plastic black buckets — of blood and soil. But what really resonates with today’s chaotic times as we teteter on the edge of Brexit oblivion is John of Gaunt’s death bed speech (Joseph Mydell) about an England that wants to conquer others but “hath made shameful conquest of itself.”
There are though a couple of misjudgements. Civil war is represented with a series of gloves being thrown down as gauntlets. The effect os oddly arch, like a series of hissy fits being thrown by designers at a fashion show.
Beale, however, is in supreme command of the King’s slide from hubris to humiliation; arrogance to humility and from casual cruelty to humane philosopher. Yet it is his newly acquired sense of humour that really conveys Richard’s change in psychology. When, Leo Bill’s slightly gauche Bolingbroke commands “...convey him to the tower”, Richard repeats “convey” in faux admiration of his usurper’s attempt at regal language.
It is so withering, you half expect Bolingbroke to hand the crown back. But of Richard it says everything about a man who is only worthy of the crown when he loses it. Blink and you’ll miss it.
Simon Russell Beale as Richard II at the Almeida