- The Tragedy of King Richard the Secondby the Almeida Theatre
Simon Russell Beale was born to play Richard II. His stage career, now in its fourth decade, has been populated by characters of high intelligence, intense self-regard, lyrical imagination, and crushing grief. His age and appearance, grizzled and stocky, don't match up with traditional conceptions of the elegant, feckless young king, but this quibble was easily overcome by the conceit of Joe Hill-Gibbins's stark and breathless production.
The whole play seemed to take place in a prison of the mind. Richard's tragic Passion remained central throughout, with the other characters often a flitting chorus on the periphery of the grimy grey set. The cast of eight, dressed in drab, monochromatic modern clothes, never left the bleak institutional enclosure for the ninety-five minutes of the play's relentless running time.
The prison metaphor was plainly central to the production; the program contained several essays from inmates about the stresses of solitary confinement. The performance started with Beale's Richard in a cold spotlight, performing an abbreviated version of Richard's act five prison speech, while the other actors faced the shadowy wall upstage. Even in his opening lines, Beale showed his characteristic ability to highlight moments of psychological insight through the strategic deployment of the pointed, not to say self-indulgent, pause. "I have been studying how I may compare / This prison—where I live—unto the world," he began, making the audience feel the weight of that realization, " where I live." Incarceration is not a temporary ordeal but a permanent, even existential, [End Page 413]condition. The whole production was an instance of the King's imagination "people[ling] this little world," a reflection on what had brought him to that extreme of suffering, which must last "till he be eased / With being nothing."
After this dark, measured opening, the play launched into bright light and frantic action. The challenges between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, and their interrupted combat, were telescoped into a single breakneck scene, keyed up by the rapid clapping of the actors, a ticking-clock sound effect, and the nearly incomprehensible, frenzied shouting of the Marshall and the participants. Bolingbroke was portrayed as a gangly, nervy adolescent by Leo Bill. Many recent productions of Richard IIhave played on the balanced contrast between the fey king and his pragmatic warrior cousin. At the Almeida, Bolingbroke was in no sense Richard's equal, and seemed rarely even to accede to authority, alternating between cringing uncertainty and desperate tantrums.
Another contrast with recent productions was that nothing was made of Richard's sexuality. One reason for this eschewal may be that Richard's favorites were cut down almost to nothing, and his Queen eliminated entirely, in the aggressive cutting of the script. Though the supporting actors were able, they often gave little sense of portraying distinct characters. Joseph Mydell brought some gravitas to John of Gaunt, and John Mackay some acerbic wit to York, but the heavy cuts and conflations left some of the other actors with impossible tasks. Natalie Klamar, for instance, spoke the lines of the "tender, raw and young" Hotspur as well as the reverend Bishop of Carlisle. Though listed as only one character—"Carlisle"—she seemed sometimes to be a soldier, sometimes a courtier, and sometimes a clergyman. Saskia Reeves seemed undercast for an actor of her stature, but made a strongly defined double out of Mowbray and the Duchess of York. The ensemble often functioned as a kind of chorus, sidling nervously along walls and whispering in conspiratorial clumps.
Among the dramaturgical strategies of the production was the use of abrupt cuts and even overlapping scenes. When...