The Tragedy Of King Richard The Second
Almeida Theatre, London ★★★★✩
THIS punchy, pared-down version of Shakespeare’s tragedy is like a boxing match that ends in three rounds. Normally you might feel short-changed, but this is more like watching the highlights — and some of the best lines ever written for the stage — crammed into a fast-moving 90 minutes.
Centre stage is the undisputed heavyweight of Shakespearean acting, Simon Russell Beale, known to screen watchers for Spooks and The Death Of Stalin but to theatregoers as an actor with a mesmerising command of the Bard.
The big idea behind Joe Hill-Gibbins’s modern-dress production is to set the action in Richard’s prison cell, a windowless steel box. Or, more accurately, inside Richard’s head. Normally it takes three acts for him to exile his enemy Bolingbroke and return from war in Ireland, only to be imprisoned. Yet prison is where we first encounter Beale’s deposed King. ‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.’
It’s not the first time Shakespearean tragedy has been presented as something that exists all in the mind. Michael Sheen’s superb Hamlet was in a psychiatric hospital. And Richard’s cell works just as well as a framing device. Beale superbly conveys arrogant Richard’s slide from hubris to humiliation. And rarely can John of Gaunt’s death-bed speech about an England that ‘hath made shameful conquest of itself’ have resonated so strongly as it does today with Britain teetering on the edge of Brexit unknown.
There are false steps, mainly of tone. When fighting becomes a slapstick hissy fit, it feels like an attempt to inject humour into the proceedings. Unnecessary, as Beale provides all the comedy we need. ‘Convey him to the tower,’ commands Bolingbroke (Leo Bill). ‘Convey,’ repeats Beale’s Richard, as if to say ‘Ooo, get him and his posh words now that he’s got my crown.’ Priceless.