Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
Writing for Us
A CurtainUp London Review
With Trevor Nunn directing, Richard II could not fail to be a polished and interesting production. There is much to be said for Nunn's modern dress political play. I have my reservations as to whether the theme of Richard II lends itself to the modern political analogy in quite the same way as say David Farr's Julius Caesar or Nicholas Hytner's Henry V. Richard II is a play about majesty in the shape of an unthinking and inept, rightful king or in the hands of his successor, judicious but still an usurper. No modern parallel works for me that illustrates the divine right of kings and the responsibility that Bolingbroke bears in deposing the God given king. Trevor Nunn might place the king in a nightclub and make the queen pose for a glossy magazine photoshoot, but at heart this is a traditionalistic reading of Richard II.
I found Kevin Spacey's King Richard curious and compulsive. In his first scene he parades the stage like a model on the runway, carrying his orb and sceptre, and flicking his purple ermine trimmed cloak affectedly at every corner of the cat walk as he struts and poses. The expression on his face is a smirk. He has to be laughing at us the audience. This is an exercise in vanity. His English accent is measured and regal, although at times the concentration required to keep this perfect may have interfered with the rhythmic delivery of Shakespeare's verse.
Television cameras film continuously and screens around the stage feature video playblack of the breaking news. John of Gaunt (Julian Glover) speaks his "This England" speech directly to the camera, a plea to the English people at large. There are echoes forward to recent scenes of war. When Bushy and Bagot are exceuted, the newsreel footage reminds us of those terrible scenes from Iraq on Al Jazeera TV of hostages pleading for their life and then being brutally beheaded. However this contemporary gesture does not add to, but detracts from, our understanding of Shakespeare's text.
Hildegard Bechter's design works really well with the dark oak panels representing the House of Lords and the peers in their red, ermine adorned cloaks. The opening scene shows a glass case holding the king's robes, an allusion to the distance between the people and the monarch, yet one that is transparent, the show case, and to the fragility of his position. The York's aristocratic home features leather sofas and a full length graduation portrait of Aumerle with Oxford's spires in the background. There is use of film music, lush and rich and I love it. On the press night there was a power outage in the area which led to some unusual lighting effects, so I am not quite sure whether the blinding light in one scene behind the king was intended or not.
Spacey as Richard rages in anger as I have never seen anger, quite spoilt and out of control. Peversely Nunn has the king stand throughout the "Let us sit upon the ground . . ." speech while he commands the courtiers to sit. In Pontefract prison, Spacey's hair stands up in spikes like a porcupine as Richard finds a humanity he did not possess as a king and displays a newly discovered self knowledge. He seeemed genuinely distressed when he says "I have no name" this man who does not know how to exist except as a king.
There are fine performances from the supporting cast. Peter Eyre is outstanding as the Duke of York and I liked too Oliver Cotton's tall brooding presence as the Earl of Nothumberland. But the acting honours go to Ben Miles as Bolingbroke. I can still see Miles' direct look, his natural majesty, as he tries to restore the values of the kingdom and to reclaim his birthright. Oliver Kieran-Jones is always agitated and animated as the affected Aumerle.
Richard's eventual murderers are played by two hangers on at court or court servants whom Nunn has cast and styled to look like the present day Princes Harry and William. I am not sure what exactly his point is. Are these the successors to Richard's throne? Do they represent the future of the constitutional monarchy? Or are they tainted with the royal flaws and vanities of previous generations? Nunn's stimulating production throws up new ideas. Maybe Kevin Spacey would consider playing the next "Richard" in the series, Richard III?
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
Click image to buy.