One of the first things which catches my eye about this stripped-down set is the large bucket labelled ‘blood’ at the back of the stage. It’s hard to miss – particularly in a grey box stage which eerily resembles a prison cell. The Almeida Theatre’s production of The Tragedy of King Richard the Second is, to say the least, not exactly as the Bard would have staged it. As might be expected for a Shakespearean tragedy (for this is certainly more tragedy than history play), the walls don’t remain grey for long.
The eponymous king is played by Simon Russell Beale, a legend of Shakespearean roles: and, as might be expected, he lives up to his reputation. He does a magnificent job of portraying the wavering king, with all of the character’s inconsistencies, particularly in the inaugural duel – the abruptness with which the duel is ceased and the terms of exile are handed out frame the character effectively (“Four?” the king says with a shrug, holding up the number on his fingers – a number subsequently rounded up to six.) It’s a performance which only grows in depth as the show progresses. It’s perhaps unusual to see an older man in the role of a precocious and immature king – a far cry from the gaunt dramatics of Ben Whishaw – but strangely appropriate. An older performer transforms the king from a precocious youth to a deluded and borderline senile man with a wavering grip on power, though no less immature for all this. The confrontation of Richard and Gaunt, himself an older man, just serves to emphasise the relative difference in maturity. The looking-glass scene is transformed from a diatribe on vanity to a piece of plain delusion.
The physicality of these actors is similarly extraordinary. Everyone in this production of Richard II looks positively miserable, on the verge of nervous exhaustion. Bolingbroke himself appears to be regretting taking the crown at all (perhaps realising it’s effectively made of paper, resembling something you might find in a Christmas cracker). Handled magnificently by Leo Bill, he captures the wonderful paradox of exile, murderer and king effortlessly. “I hate the murderer, love him murdered” is the culmination of this character, and it’s brandished with a painful edge.
The characters which form some sort of rough ensemble appear tense and edgy, by turns huddling together in fearful reverence or sidestepping around the edges of the stage – like an animation from Pink Panther – in a display of surreptitious espionage. A series of camp duel challenges result in an utterly farcical fight, with gardening gloves being launched across the stage and characters running headlong screaming. The timing of many lines elicits genuine laughter from the audience – a purist will of course be horrified by the clownish take on a Shakespearean classic, but in these interesting times we live in, such a take feels intensely necessary. We do live in a political situation as absurd as the one presented on stage. It feels right to present this in all its wonderful, horrifying, farcical glory – the audience is laughing, but it’s a dark humour, akin to laughing at a man on the gallows.
Standing at a relatively diminutive one hour and forty minutes with no interval, the show effectively speed runs through its first portion, with lines coming at such lightning speed that I sometimes struggle to keep up – the pacing of a boxing match seems to be prioritised over clarity of expression. Eventually, however, it begins to settle into a clearer, though hardly calmer, form. The latter two-thirds of the play are intensely compelling, with space given for the weighty monologues which are indubitably the highlights of the production. Richard’s madness, presented largely as arbitrariness towards the start, becomes incredibly, and hauntingly, gripping.
The madness on stage is effectively enhanced by the set which contains it, and the technical elements which at first appear so inconspicuous – yes, even the aforementioned bucket – turn into a messy, stained hellscape, filled with dirt, blood, and water. It’s visceral and compelling, but only heightened by the minimalism it operates in. This creates an interesting dynamic, in which everyone is visible at all times, seemingly unable to escape – the courtiers constantly watch from the side-lines; exiles remain frozen where they are banished, curled up on stage. A letter to be relayed is watched with quiet horror by the one who is to receive it. A cell-like stage offers nowhere to hide, even when a character might wish to. As it stands, both characters and audience are left to watch this political farce unfold together. Appropriately, it ends on a note of hysterical laughter.
The Tragedy of King Richard the Second will be broadcast live to 700 UK cinemas and beyond on Tuesday 15 January – www.ntlive.com