Richard II

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory
The Tobacco Factory, Bristol
(2011)

Andrew Hilton's latest production of Richard II, part of his annual programme of Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, is a triumph. This is a fascinating, stripped-bare production of one of Shakespeare's most absorbing Histories.

Richard II has at its heart a complex - and timeless - study of what power and an inflated sense of your own self-worth can do to a human being in a position of authority.

Hilton's direction gives a strong cast an easy naturalism, without ever compromising the clarity of delivery or the fluid rhythms of the verse. The effect is a thoroughly commanding production.

The cast is without weak link, but is lit from within by John Heffernan's astounding King Richard. Spoilt, ill-informed and decadent, Heffernan's Richard is at once effete and dangerous; the extent of his delusion appearing to keep him ever so slightly off-kilter.

Under Hilton's direction, Heffernan doesn't over-play the theatrical Christ-like references as some have done - if you come to this production with memories of Jeremy Irons' crucifixion, leave them at the door. Instead, his love affair with his Divine Right to kingship is bathed in a naturalistic modernity which makes it far more resonant and uncomfortable for a twenty-first century audience.

Benjamin Whitrow is an authoritative John of Gaunt, cursed with the wisdom of age so that he sees precisely the damage being done to the country by the young and impetuous King. Julia Hills is a triumph both as the Duchess of Gloucester and the Duchess of York. And Roland Oliver is memorable as the Duke of York, squeezing every last drop out of some of the greatest passages of indulgent, worry-worn and grumpy old-age Shakespeare has to offer. Matthew Thomas is an unflinching and dynamic Henry Bullingbrooke, the original spelling aptly restored for this production.

Ultimately, Heffernan's deceptively camp and effete kingship, for all its self-aggrandised snobbery, serves to heighten the King's ultimate fall from grace. The new testament parallels - the abandonment and denial of his right-hand men (the 'flatterers'), his humiliating progress through an angry mob on the back of a donkey, and the treachery of his ultimate demise - are all the more affecting in the light of the humility and self-realisation which Heffernan brings to the final scenes.

Far from a theatrical over-egging of the delusions of an out-of-touch monarch, Heffernan's Richard II learns from his mistakes; in the final analysis, he grows up. In these troubled times, this brings much resonance to this fascinating production.

Runs at the Tobacco Factory until Saturday 19 March, 2011

Allison Vale