First things first: it says something about the condition of the seating in some of the West End’s theatres when I can sit on a wooden church pew for three hours, with no cushions for support, and be more comfortable than I would in a tip-up upholstered seat with armrests.
There is something a bit eerie about seeing a play in a working church – there were prayer mats being used as back supports and booster cushions, and parish notices tacked on to a large board at the rear of the nave. “The wine is free on Sundays,” quipped one fellow theatregoer at the interval, in a reference to Holy Communion. “Ah yes,” came the swift reply from another Hampstead Players regular attendee. “But you don’t get a choice between red and white!” I also wondered if the persistent cough from the church Vicar during the first half was, in effect, the Almighty expressing disapproval of this production through His messenger. It transpired at the interval that both he and his boss were enjoying the proceedings, but his health is not what it was, and he can’t wait for his 65th birthday in March when he can be pensioned off.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a full-blown Shakespeare production in a church before. The Hampstead Players are linked to the Hampstead Parish Church, which hosts the vast majority of their productions. Though not technically a religious organisation, The Hampstead Players exists, in part, according to a note in the programme, “to use drama to promote the mission of the Church”. As such it is a non-profit entity, and takes pleasure (not pride – for pride is one of the seven deadly sins of the Church) in presenting amateur works to the public.
Richard II (Matthew Williams) goes from jovial to downtrodden to dead in a progressive downward spiral. His portrayal of King Richard was not as shouty as one might have expected. It doesn’t matter – for to be a king, one must at least sound like a king, and if one doesn’t, one can only expect one’s usurper to succeed. It was almost as though this Richard II didn’t particularly want to be King: he was furious with John of Gaunt (a very likeable Bill Fry), his uncle, because he didn’t appreciate his advice. With the pretender to the throne, Henry Bolingbroke (Adrian Hughes), he is infinitely more civil, and does not exactly fight to the last: “With mine own hands I give away my crown […] All pomp and majesty I do forswear”.
This is not, however, a one man show. Performances by Ian Howarth’s Duke of Aumerle and David Gardner’s Duke of York frankly made me forget I was watching an amateur production. Mary Clare’s Queen Isabel was particularly engaging, with a palpable distress at being parted from King Richard, once when he leaves for Ireland, and again after her husband is removed from office and he is packed off to Pomfret (meaning Pontefract Castle, in Yorkshire) and she deported to France (her birthplace). There is a maturity beyond her years: her tears are neither shallow nor meaningless but come from heartbreak and sorrow.
The show could have benefited from being a little pacier. For instance, I would have appreciated, I think, a greater sense of urgency on both royalists and rebels alike when it becomes clear the King’s position is under threat. Instead the cast continues in a stately manner, delivering each line with paced and perfect clarity, save for the inevitable one person who delivers his lines in unprojected monotone.
But the best of amateur – and this really is the best of amateur – by far outshines the worst of the professional productions, and The Hampstead Players, with their excellent lighting, costumes and actors, have set a high standard indeed. They have been doing Shakespeare plays for some years, and the experience shows in this play: even some professionals seek to act out every one of Shakespeare’s lines. The Hampstead Players know better, and let the words do the work. This is a strong, solid and faithful rendering of this great tragedy.
Review by Chris Omaweng
This royal throne of kings, this sceptr’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars…
O call back yesterday; bid time return…
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.
The beautiful, complex spaces of Hampstead Parish Church are different from a traditional theatre. They provide the ideal setting for a play of movement and action. The Hampstead Players’ cast of 20, playing 40 parts between them, make this a special experience.
The Tragedy of King Richard II
Thursday 9th July at 7.30pm
Friday 10th July at 7.30pm
Saturday 11th July at 2.30pm and 7.30pm
Hampstead Parish Church, Church Row, London NW3 6UU
Friday 10th July 2015