If I learned anything during my tenure in Stratford Upon Avon, it was to be more open-minded about how I take my Shakespeare. I used to insist on undiluted purity: straight up, no ice. That kind of snobbery kept me from enjoying variations and interpretations that enhanced, rather than detracting from, his works’ richness. But a girl has her limits, and I share mine with James Bond: I’m willing to go shaken, not stirred.
The National Theatre Live production of The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, from the Almeida Theatre, pushed the limits, and not in a good way. Admittedly, Simon Russell Beale faced an uphill challenge in my eyes. The Hollow Crown’s Ben Whishaw will, for me, set the bar against which I will measure all other pretenders to RII’s crown. Interestingly, Beale played, for me, the definitive Falstaff in that same series, and should have left it there. RII died in 1400 at the age of 33. At 58, Beale, with his shock of white hair, exuded maturity more than naïveté, confidence more than confusion. Poor Richard had neither of the former. We had the pleasure of hosting Beale at the Shakespeare Institute for one of our Thursday lectures. He is a delightful person and immensely talented actor, as evidenced in his deft handling of critical moments like Richard’s homecoming from Ireland and the abdication/deposition and jail scenes. But overall, he failed to convey RII’s essence, as I understand it.
The production, as he himself told the audience in the filmed pre-show paratext, is “not what someone who is familiar with Richard II would expect.” To call it “pared down” is like saying that a buzz cut is a trim for someone who’s grown dreadlocks for 20 years. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins set the under-two-hours of action in a doorless, windowless, bare grey cube, meant, he said, to represent England. It would have made a more fitting set for Sartre’s No Exit. The eight actors had to either cower, stone still, in the corners or curl up in child’s pose during scenes in which they did not participate. Only clearly labeled black plastic buckets of water, blood, and dirt served as both props and special effects to great success in some cases, less so in others. A bucket of water becomes, echoing Narcissus, the mirror for which RII pleads pathetically in the deposition/abdication scene. He ‘smashes’ it after gazing into it by splashing the water all over the courtiers. Most of the time, though, I just kept waiting for someone to wipe out in the blood-covered floor (like in the RCS’s recent production of The Duchess of Malfi), and indeed one actor did an unintentional half split after he slid across the red mess. Or wanting to wipe dirt out of Beale’s brows and eyes. Or get the whole cast dry shirts. It was clever given the constraints Hill-Gibbins chose but was ultimately more distracting than effective.
I found Leo Bill’s Bolingbroke to be whatever you’d call the grey flavor of vanilla. As the ascendant Henry IV, who is about to star in the first two installments of the Henriad, he had the opportunity to explore a moving conflict within himself – avenging the wrongs that RII has visited upon his family and taking the thrown that he and others feel is rightfully his, but doing so at the cost of having to depose a sitting monarch, and then to carry the guilt (and literally in this case) the blood on his hands of an assassination he never ordered. Bill just didn’t fit the bill.
And his stage father, John of Gaunt, gets to deliver some of the most moving and endearing words in all of Shakespere: the Sceptered Isle speech. But Joseph Mydell had the ghost of Sir Patrick Stewart who nailed it in The Hollow Crown haunting him, and he couldn’t overcome it.
The production was frenetic and at times hard to follow, even for someone familiar with the play. I cannot imagine being unfamiliar or even just casually acquainted with it and trying to make sense of the dialogue and action. This, for me, was the fatal flaw. I applaud any version, iteration, or with-a-twist presentation that makes Shakespeare more accessible, more palatable, or more comprehensible to more people (and have seen many). This cocktail, despite some delicious moments courtesy mostly of Beale, gave me more of a hangover than a heady buzz.