Richard II

William Shakespeare
Old Vic
(2005)

Ben Miles as Bolingbroke and Kevin Spacey as Richard II

Sir Trevor Nunn is one of the few directors who has really conquered the Old Vic in recent times. His Hamlet starring Ben Whishaw has already become the stuff of legend only a year after it sold out this gigantic barn of a theatre.

Following a lacklustre first season, the theatre's artistic director Kevin Spacey must heartily wish that some of the Nunn magic might rub off on the theatre today. There is therefore little doubt that this new production of Richard II has been one of the most eagerly anticipated of the year.

Sir Trevor has done his best to repeat the formula that did so well last time. Once again, the actors are in modern dress, the verse-speaking is generally very clear and the design and soundtrack are constantly lively. This is theatre as spectacle and in many ways, it really works.

The curtain rises on a glass cabinet encasing the ceremonial regalia of the soon-to-be crowned Richard, one of many strikingly beautiful images. Very slowly, to the uplifting coronation music of Zadok the Priest, Mr Spacey is clothed and takes up his position on an uncomfortable looking wooden throne.

Almost immediately, the modern setting cuts in as two noblemen fight in Parliament. Looking like nothing so much as Tony Blair and David Davis (or is that going to be Cameron?) they begin a verbal joust that leaves both exiled to partake of "the bitter bread of banishment". He does not yet know it but this also begins Richard's slide towards a final tragic denouement that arrives three hours later.

It may be possible to rid the country of the Duke of Norfolk but his rival, Bolingbroke (Ben Miles) is the king's cousin and not somebody to cross. The future Henry IV's father, Julian Glover's John of Gaunt, knows that he will never see his son again. Making the most of the television cameras that capture his This England speech, he denounces the King from gigantic screens in terms that eventually provoke the uprising which is effectively the start of the Wars of the Roses.

From this point onwards, the two factions head towards an ultimate clash that ends in a whimper rather than a bang as Richard gives up his kingdom and is banished to the apparent safety of Pomfret Castle.

Sometimes in Sir Trevor's productions, the emphasis can be too much on the look rather than the underlying feel. In this case, Hildegard Bechtler's practical set and costumes, including sinister balaclavas and black combat gear for Bolingbroke's invaders, are enhanced to great effect by Peter Mumford's wonderful lighting, which must surely win awards.

Added to this, some actors who look as if they had been chosen for their beauty as much as their acting skills guarantee that this will be a visually memorable evening. In particular, Genevieve O'Reilly makes the Queen seem like a French sex kitten, possibly a young Brigitte Bardot.

The director may also have had his eye on the possibility of filming the play. The soundtrack is positively filmic with accompanying music throughout, unusually for the stage. This can also aid the political impact of the pla, especially when, as a contrast to the regal music for Richard, his successor that "true born Englishman" Henry IV is welcomed by Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, surely chosen for more than just its pleasant sound.

And what of Kevin Spacey in the title role? Unfortunately, he does not seem well cast for the part. He effortlessly sheds the necessary years and comes across convincingly as a man 20 years younger than he is. The American accent is more of a problem, hardly noticeable for much of the time but strengthening whenever the character loses his temper.

The real difficulty is that, in the same way as he has in his last two parts on this stage, Spacey always seems poised for moments of cynical, low comedy to the extent that he makes the King seem almost camp.

This is not disastrous for the production, particularly since Ben Miles, Julian Glover and Oliver Cotton as Henry's henchman, the Earl of Northumberland, all acquit themselves well, as do Peter Eyre as a bumbling Duke of York and the much younger David Leon playing Harry Percy.

The conclusion must be that Kevin Spacey is still awaiting his first Old Vic hit but perhaps neither he nor the producers are that concerned since almost everything in the theatre since he took over has sold out.

Visit our sponsor 1st 4 London Theatre to book tickets for
Richard II.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher