ADC Mainshow, 7.45pm, until Sat 5th May
For an Easter term production, ‘Richard II’ seems like a brave choice. As one of Shakespeare’s ‘Histories’, it would seem to contain little light relief and only the tales of regal woe and usurpation. The play’s treatment of the heinous crime of regicide was made even more heinous by this play’s performance immediately after the Essex Rebellion, an aspect this production strove to pull out. Far from the fidgeting, or worse festering, audience one might expect for one of the, shall we say, ‘less mainstream’ Shakespeare plays, the audience was energised by an intricate and intelligently realised production.
The traditional approach taken by Johnston’s direction seemed at first a little unimaginative – the characters shuffled in their tights and pantaloons like unwilling teenagers in a school production and, save the talcum powdered hair of Old Gaunt, there seemed little to distinguish young from old, weak from strong. But as the audience eased into the play, so too did the actors and actresses. Quentin Beroud’s Bolingbroke reigned tall and firm over the simpering nobles and the defeatist, and then defeated, king. The performance of Laura Jayne Ayres as Bolingbroke’s aunt was an incredibly amusing and welcome balance to the tragic preceding scene.
Although the controversies that undercut the play (the rippling undertones of homosexuality and caustic Realpolitik) were not made explicit, the play was by no means a safe or unimaginative endeavour. Alex Gomar did initially play King Richard with more than a hint of effeminacy, symptomatic of a weak ruler with plenty of flatterers, only to overcome this as the play’s action rolled, tragically, on.
If the actors seemed at times too aware of the pithiness and anachronistic nature of their characters’ words, the play retained its tragic momentum, culminating in what I deem to be some of the most breath-taking lines in all of Shakespeare (not, as one might expect, spoken by a foolish king). Gomar was able to shed the skin (and those awful chain-mail tights) of a deposed and foppish man (for man he must be then) in order to assume the physical and linguistic stature of the rightful king. The sense of unbearable pathos with which this play ends was not marred by any of the play’s natural limitations, such as the difficulty of adequately representing death on stage and historical necessity.
The characters’ actions were, within the constraints of the text, always fully realised and the audience appeared to revel in this rich play as much as its cast. Although they sometimes got burnt by the fire of Shakespearean rhetoric, they played ‘Richard II’ with a great deal of professionalism and delight.