Flooded with royal self knowl­edge

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - THEATRE JOHN NATHAN

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.

PHOTO: MARC BREN­NER

Si­mon Rus­sell Beale as Richard II at the Almeida

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