Less than a week ago, our own Philip Fisher spent a whole day watching the Donmar Warehouse's critically-acclaimed, all-female Shakespeare productions, but in 1995 it was a controversial move to cast an actress in the lead of one of Shakespeare's histories.
Deborah Warner's production of Richard II for the National Theatre cast Irish actress Fiona Shaw as the English monarch. It was restaged two years later for broadcast on BBC2, and it is this version that has now been released by Illuminations on DVD.
However this was not just a filmed stage production; it was totally restaged by Warner as a full-length TV movie, albeit with quite a few cuts from the original. Hildegard Bechtler's designs for stage adapt well to the TV medium, giving a clear suggestion of the period without any fussy naturalism.
Shaw's detailed portrayal of Richard does not make the character female but pushes the existing ideas of his effeminacy a stage further, in particular with strong indications that his relationship with Bollingbroke—here not the blunt, inarticulate warrior in Richard Bremmer's interpretation—may have been sexual, which strengthens his bitterness when Richard first sends him into exile and then disinherits him on the death of his father, John of Gaunt (Graham Crowden).
Richard's sexuality also seems to be partly responsible for his poor choice of friends and advisers, particularly Julian Rhind-Tutt's snide Duke of Aumerle, as the two exchange nods and sly grins across the room like a couple of cocky teenagers.
The play is cut down to around two hours—the original on stage used the full text—but it is neatly edited to work well for the small screen. Shaw's charismatic performance is central to the piece, of course, but there is an impressive supporting cast, including Donald Sinden as the Duke of York in addition to those named above.
This release includes as extras a couple of short but informative interviews with Shaw and Warner looking back on the production and its impact from twenty years later.
This is a valuable record of a fascinating and significant production with a powerful central performance in which Shaw puts across one of Shakespeare's most lyrical plays with great clarity. It deserves a place on the DVD shelf of any Shakespeare fan.
Reviewer: David Chadderton