Stephen Pimlotts staging of the first in the Royal Shakespeare Companys season of Shakespeares history plays is a doubly welcome event.
Firstly, it allows visitors to the Barbican to see a really uplifting start to this lengthy season. Secondly, we get the chance to answer the question "was Richard II self-employed?".
This is because Richard is played by that scourge of the Inland Revenue, Sam West. In 1993, Sam West, the son of Timothy West and Prunella Scales, along with Alec McCowen challenged the Inland Revenues proposition that all actors were by definition employees.
He was successful in his claim and much to the benefit of those in and around the stage, the Inland Revenue are now forced to accept that the actors already uncertain profession is not simply an employment.
The Barbicans Pit has been re-modelled for the current season. Rather than performing in the Round, a more classical seating arrangement and stage has appeared. The stage and almost the whole of the set and props are completely white. There is a gold painted wooden chair to represent a throne and an exceptionally versatile mound of earth that in some performances could have been the star as it is in the action so much. Beyond this, all is white.
Together with Simon Kemps very clever lighting this presents a stunning effect. We see variations from ultra-violet to semi-darkness to bright neon-lit white. This is a most unusual way to present Shakespeare and works extremely well.
Into this setting are brought Wests Richard and his entourage mainly in modern dress. He is challenged by Bolingbroke who will soon become Henry IV. He is supported by an entourage in much older garb. David Troughton (son of Dr Who) is a very good actor and brings all of his experience to bear playing Bolingbroke. Along with other members of the cast, he interacts with his audience, addressing them directly and picking out individual members to chat with (or embarrass).
In fact, at the start of the play Richard II is seated in the front row of the audience reading a copy of the play script and chatting with the person next to him. He makes his entrance from there and, following the interval, Troughton does the same. This is perhaps symbolic of the shift of power between the two.
Symbolism is uppermost in director Stephen Pimlotts mind throughout this production. The mound of earth changes from a grave to a garden to a representation of England with seeming alacrity. Similarly, the white Yorkist rose and the red Lancastrian one play important parts, particularly towards the end where we see a bush of young red roses growing to replace a thrown away fully mature white one. This brings home to us that we are at the start of a major cycle.
The other major imagery is the Christ-like imagery around the young Richard who it could be argued was martyred. We see him at one stage in a crown of thorns and later pulling his own cell/coffin in an imitation of his predecessor dragging the cross to his own crucifixion. All of this adds to the impact of Shakespeares beautiful verbal imagery.
While West and Troughton are the acting stars and have the major roles, they are very well supported. In particular, Paul Greenwood as the Bishop of Carlisle gives a very moving sermon during which he denounces the new king and Catherine Walker, an exceptional young Irish actress, is very moving as Richards Queen Isobel, particularly in the allegorical garden scene and on her final parting from her husband. We have already seen the pressures on her as a result of the relationship between the king and his cousin, Aumerle, played sardonically by Alexis Daniel, who at one stage looks so louche in a smoking jacket that you imagine he is doing a Noel Coward impression.
Pimlott does not forget comedy in this tragic play. As well as witty interaction with the audience by most members of the cast at various stages, we see one exceptionally funny scene as Richard prepares to concede his crown. He enters the stage whistling God Save the King draped in the flag of St George looking like some historical football fan. This is also the moment at which Richards crown is turned to thorns and the sceptre that he must give up becomes the symbolic white rose.
As Richard says at the start of this production although not at the start of Shakespeares original text:
"Thus play I in one person many people and none contented: sometimes am I king; then treason makes me wish myself a beggar, and so I am"
and so, by the end, he is. All in all, this is a wonderful exploration of the joys and woes of kingship.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher