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A CurtainUp London Review
The Tragedy of King Richard II

"A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown, whose compass is no bigger than thy head."
— John of Gaunt
The Tragedy of King Richard II
Simon Russell Beale as Richard II
(Photo: Marc Brenner)
There is nothing outwardly regal about this version of Richard II as we see a small cast in T shirts and jeans recreate the royal court of 1398 when Thomas Mowbray Duke of Norfolk (Saskia Reeves) challenges Henry Bolinbroke Duke of Hereford (Leo Bill) and Richard II (Simon Russell Beale) banishes both of them before the duel can take place. The only concession to 14th century dress is their gauntlets, well gloves really, so the challenges can takes place.

I would drive for hours to hear Simon Russell Beale's wonderful voice with its timbre of expressive mellow resonance and in order to lose some of the discord of Joe Hill-Gibbins' truncated and rapidly indigestible production, I tried to shut my eyes and just listen. But that was to no avail as the speed and editing of Shakespeare's text would have thoroughly confused anyone not familiar with this truly great Shakespearean play.

Richard II illustrates the rule of a king who believes he rules by divine right and who therefore cannot be deposed but there is also a human story here, that of a man who is inadequate as a king but who does not know how else to live other than as a king. It is also the precursor to the Henry IV plays and why Henry IV, previously Bolingbroke, can never relax as king because he knows he deposed and had killed the rightful monarch, his cousin Richard. Not until Henry V comes to the throne is England once again ruled by a king with divine right.

In Timothy West's autobiography A Moment Towards the End of the Play, he describes where in the 1950s and 60s the mounting of West End productions on tour in the provinces without their West End stars. He says the audience come not to see the actors, but the play. It is the play which engages them, not the stars. I thought here I might concentrate on the words with no distractions, certainly of set or costume, but Joe Hill Gibbins' severed production does not even allow that.

Lining the stage are buckets labelled blood, water and soil. These are emptied over the cast, an artifice that did not have me believing in the death of who was covered in blood but aware that as Saskia Reeves switched to the Duchess of York, one of her four parts that her cheeks were still red from the demise of Green. She set her characterisations well with her Mowbray with a set jaw of determination. Leo Bill's Bolingbroke was always nervous, anxious and ill at ease with the conflict of his role. Joseph Mydell's Gaunt has gravitas.

I grow old, I grow old . . . . grow too old for the conceit of directors.

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The Tragedy of King Richard II
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins
Starring: Simon Russell Beale, Saskia Reeves, Leo Bill, Joseph Mydell
With: Martin Imhangbe, John Mackay, Robin Weaver, Natalie Klamer
Design: Ultz
Sound Design: Peter Rice
Lighting Design: James Farncombe
Running time: One hour 40 minutes with no interval
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking to 2nd Febuary 2019
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 19th December 2018 performance at the Almeida Theatre, Almeida street, London N1 1TA (Tube: The Angel)
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