Richard II

William Shakespeare
Guildford Shakespeare Company
Holy Trinity Church, High Street, Guildford

Laura Matthews as Bolingbroke and Daniel Burke as Richard II Credit: Mark Dean

GSC has noticed some rather alarming parallels between the court of Richard II and our present Government and they have based this latest production on the political aspects of our leaders, then and now.

Richard II came to the throne as a very young man and proceeded to use his power, and the taxpayers' money, to enjoy himself either with wild drinking parties where he extravagantly spread his wealth around his friends and colleagues. He was not a successful leader of men, had trouble with his Knights (ministers?), was wastefully spending money on the war in Ireland and the pandemic of a plague was another problem to be considered. His lack of leadership as well as his extravagance eventually led to his downfall.

Designer Neil Irish has transformed the chancel of this lovely church into a stunningly beautiful ‘throne room’, glowing richly with red and gold and enhanced with Mark Dymock’s lighting, and here sits the King at his desk with his assistant Bagot taking notes, but first we see a veiled lady enter from the back of the hall and place a wreath of flowers on a coffin raised up in the centre among the audience. A lot of the action takes place here, from the mourning for the coffin’s inhabitant, the murdered Duke of Gloucester, to a riotous champagne party, to the dual between the two noblemen, Bolingbroke and Mowbray, who, each accusing the other of murder and treason, fight to settle their differences resulting in their banishment from England.

Bolingbroke, rather surprisingly, is a woman (Laura Matthews) who plays the role extremely well with poise, authority and confidence, although my sympathies were not with her when she casually watched / took part in the short torture scene, and another male role is given to a woman as John of Gaunt becomes Joan of Gaunt, the mother of Bolingbroke. Old and seemingly close to death, she arrives with her royal walking frame and Anne Kavanagh delivers the famous speech:

"This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle…
This fortress built by nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea…
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England."

with such force, vigour, anger and frustration that she almost loses control of her support, but manages to finish by cursing Richard who, after her death, seizes her lands and property, thus depriving Bolingbroke of his / her rightful inheritance.

There is quite a lot of doubling up among the cast and it was a little confusing to see Kavanagh shortly afterwards now hale and hearty and playing nobleman Northumberland, but young and versatile Sally Cheng takes three parts and excels at every one. As the King’s assistant / secretary, she is in the background but quietly resigned and a little annoyed to have to tear up her work, probably due to the indecisive Richard changing his instructions. As Richard’s Queen, she is regal and rather aware of her own importance, and as assistant Bagot, she displays her anger and frustration in a frenzy of destruction.

Matt Pinches copes superbly, as always, with five roles and Sarah Gobran gives a beautifully restrained and sensitive performance as Richard’s aunt, the Duchess of York.

My only complaint was that the acoustics of the huge church seemed to slightly muffle the voices and I couldn’t catch all of the dialogue, but just the same, it is a very powerful play and one which kept the audience attentive and gripped from beginning to end. Not a murmur from any one of them, almost holding their breath.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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