Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Richard II

William Shakespeare
Donmar Warehouse
(2011)

Richard II marks the end of an era as it is the last production that Michael Grandage will direct as Artistic Director of the Donmar. Given his fantastic record at the theatre, there was never seemed a doubt that this atmospheric evening would enable Grandage to bow out on a high.

His generally young cast is led from the front by Eddie Redmayne, looking uncannily like Andy Murray, in the role of Richard, a tyro King whose life was exceedingly short.

Chronologically, this is the first of Shakespeare's history plays and it pits Yorkist Richard against Andrew Buchan playing his Lancastrian cousin Bolingbroke, later Henry IV.

Designer Richard Kent ensures that the period is conveyed well with the small Donmar stage backed by gilded Gothic arches and stairways, illuminated by David Plater's subtle lighting, which at its best looks like an artistic tableau.

Redmayne, who made such a big impression in Red at the same venue and then on Broadway a couple of years ago, proves equal to the task of portraying a King who never feels sure of his crown but desperately uses diplomacy in his efforts to quell trouble from all quarters.

From the opening scene, in which the hot-blooded pairing of Bolingbroke and Ben Turner's Mowbray joust verbally and then are exiled, trouble haunts Richard.

This continues throughout two and three-quarter hours by the end of which he has been deposed in favour of Henry and died, ensuring that the Wars of the Roses will have considerable longevity.

Though there are many confrontations, the most significant is between the current and future Kings, with Richard giving as good as he gets, although eventually support wanes to the extent that he can no longer maintain power.

Redmayne speaks his lines perfectly and Grandage ensures that this extends to every member of the cast. As a result, Shakespeare's language shines with the writer's robust, alliterative poetry delighting in a way that is rarely the case with this play.

The supporting cast all play their parts to the manner born with Michael Hadley particularly memorable as John of Gaunt and a gardener. It was inevitable in the former role that with the "This England" speech and subsequent curses he would shine, managing it again as a gardener was perhaps a greater achievement.

Similarly, Ron Cook as the Duke of York works well in differing circumstances, as he supports first one King and then the other and finally is upstaged by Sian Thomas playing his Duchess when their son, Ashley Zhangazha's Aumerle, is in need of mercy from a new King with a cruel streak.

While Richard II may be too much a play of political manoeuvring to be in the very top drawer, Michael Grandage and Eddie Redmayne, taking time out from a burgeoning film career, guarantee that this sell-out production will let the director finish his tenure in the strongest fashion.

Playing until 4 February

Reviewer: Philip Fisher