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The Tragedy of King Richard the Second

William Shakespeare
Almeida Theatre

Simon Russell Beale Credit: Marc Brenner
Simon Russell Beale and Leo Bill Credit: Marc Brenner
The Cast of The Tragedy of King Richard the Second Credit: Marc Brenner

Under Rupert Goold’s tenure, the Almeida has specialised in stripped-down, modernised versions of the classics.

Even by the theatre’s own standards, Joe Hill-Gibbins’s 100-minute reinterpretation of Richard II is extreme. The action takes place in a set designed by Ultz, which comprises nothing more than a metallic box from which the actors have no escape, even when they are taking no part in the action.

Rather than costumes, the performers wear what looks like clothing borrowed from the scene shifters. The closest that anyone gets to props are a gold-coloured crown that looks as if has been borrowed from a Christmas partygoer and half a dozen labelled buckets containing soil, water and blood.

Presumably the idea behind such a production is to foreground and highlight the talents of the actors on show. While half a dozen of these form a highly adaptable supporting ensemble, playing multiple roles with gender being ignored where appropriate, the central duo are undoubtedly the stars.

The eponymous king is portrayed by the great Simon Russell Beale, who could excel reading the phone book in a black T-shirt and chinos. In this case, such clothing forms his kingly garb, robbing the audience of the normal pomp and circumstance that they have come to expect from a Shakespearean history play and taking away any sense of period.

In return, Russell Beale delivers the kind of pitch-perfect performance that we have all come to expect, sharing monarchical power and anger but also remorse at various points in the proceedings.

As the text unfolds, it becomes clear why an artistic director would seek to revive this play in the current political climate. In the opening scene, we see rival factions at loggerheads, with loyal supporters banished while a regretful nobleman expresses his belief that “this dear land is leased out”. Sound familiar?

One of those banished in the opening minutes is Leo Bill’s naturally nervous Herford or Bolingbroke, soon to become Duke of Lancaster. He instantly becomes a sworn enemy to his cousin the King at a moment that we know, even if neither of them does, is the commencement of The Wars of the Roses.

The conflict between the king and the man who becomes his successor is the key to this evening, as confident Richard oversteps the mark, igniting anger in his rival and the country, eventually forced to step down ignominiously like some 21st-century Conservative Party leader.

To avoid what could effectively become the equivalent to a radio play performed on stage, the actors emote, sometimes to an excessive extent that can almost resemble children at play.

The buckets are duly emptied, causing great discomfort to poor Simon Russell Beale but also impressive effects which, at times, can be unexpectedly moving.

This kind of staging of a classic is not to everybody’s taste and many will wonder whether the acting talents on show would not have been better served by something a little more traditional.

However, it is very much in vogue at the moment and adherents will lap up an evening unlike any other currently available on the London stage.

While the Almeida is a small theatre that tends to sell out almost as soon a production is announced, particularly when Simon Russell Beale is heading the cast, those that miss out will have an opportunity to see the staging on 15 January as part of the NT Live programme in cinemas up and down the country and also worldwide.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher