Whilst Richard II is normally categorised as one of the Histories in the Shakespeare canon it is truly, also, one of his finest Tragedies, infused with some of the most beautifully poetic language to ever be spoken on stage.
In this “new version” adapted (changed) and directed by Jack Gamble and Quentin Beroud we have a purely political drama, updated, in which the tragedy is subjugated to the expediency of a modern constitutional narrative and the poetry fades into plot-driven insignificance.
There is nothing wrong with modern dress versions of Shakespeare – the mastery of his work is that it is still relevant, mostly, today. But once you start to change the original then problems occur.
Richard II is the first part of Shakespeare’s “Hollow Crown” trilogy – followed by “Henry IV” (parts 1 and 2) and culminating in “Henry V” – and his overriding theme is that of kingship. An immediate problem occurs, therefore, when Henry (Harry) Bolingbroke – the future Henry 4 – is female. I have no problem with cross-gender casting but if you decide to change Shakespeare it has to make sense. Everyone refers to Harriet (Harri) Bolingbroke (Hermione Gulliford in killer heels) as “she” (except when they forget) but she remains a Duke, not a Duchess: by that token Kate Middleton, the current Duchess of Cambridge (and this show is current) would be the Duke of Cambridge which would mean there are two Dukes simultaneously. Worse than that, when Harriet seizes Richard’s crown she does not become queen, she is called king: that is just crass.
The pivotal (retained) plot device is that when Richard goes off to war in Ireland his return is delayed and the rumour goes around that he is dead, as no-one can make contact with him, so his army disperses. This is the same Richard whose entourage all have mobile phones, whose every movement is tracked by 24 hour news programmes which we see displayed on big TV screens and who takes with him, apparently, a full press corps. John Rentoul of “The Independent” has just done a feature on plotlines that no longer work due to technology. This is one such.
Tim Delap’s Richard is constrained by the limits of the adaptation. In his sober suit, amongst his uncharacteristically reticent acolytes and with his modern, political, authoritarian, coached-for- TV demeanour he is light years away from the Richard that Shakespeare envisaged – described by Bolingbroke (when King, in “Henry VI”) thus: The skipping king, he ambled up and down, with shallow jesters and rash bavin wits, soon kindled and soon burnt. This Richard is no dandy. Delap does not amble, he does not skip; he is not surrounded by rash, bavin wits, or sycophants or flatterers. In their determination to make this show relevant, Richard deliberately becomes, for all intents and purposes, a Cameron figure when in fact he has more in common with a Boris, or a Good-time Charlie Kennedy or even a Farage. Where’s the booze, where’s fawning flattery, where are the gaudy clothes, for heaven’s sake!
Another difficulty with this production is the doubling which doesn’t seem to have been thought through. Natasha Bain playing Richard’s Queen, Isabella, is the best actor here and shows it in the touching voicing of her prescient, heart-felt “unborn sorrow” avowal; but when she turns up as Northumberland, after putting on jacket and specs, in the very next scene, it’s hard to take.
As for the poetry, it’s bad enough that Roland Oliver, as John of Gaunt in wheelchair, does his utmost to make “this sceptered Isle” sound like a Lidl shopping list by sucking all the life out of it and we’re very pleased, like Richard, that he goes off and dies; but when Oliver re-emerges as the Bishop of Carlisle and, in trying to save Richard from murder, actually murders the beautiful speech interceding on his behalf, it feels suspiciously like an unwanted 2 for 1 offer.
I tried to see this production when it was performed pre-Arcola in the Houses of Parliament. Unfortunately, with only 100 seats and over 8,500 applications, I was not lucky in the ballot (though I note that set designer Emily Harwood managed to spirit away a couple of the Portcullis embossed green leather chairs from the House of Commons: what would Speaker Bercow say?). Instead I went on Saturday to the same venue to see a production of Act 4 Scene 1 of “Richard II” by Edward’s Boys, students of the Edward IV School in Stratford – Shakespeare’s alma mater. Not only did these sixth formers fully grasp and appreciate the tragedy in their 15 minutes of parliamentary fame but the language, the poetry, was treated with the care, consideration and understanding that it should be. It was haunting and powerful.
In Dippermouth and Hartshorn-Hook Production’s stripped down version we lose the history, we lose the tragedy and the poetry is subservient to the overriding need to make cheap contemporary political points. As a modern take on the politics of the day, it does, of course, work: then again we watch all that being played out through the 24 hour news cycle every day. It’s played out, though, without poetry, without a real sense of history and with an absence of any tangible tragedy because the majority of voters don’t really care. By all means let us celebrate the 400 years since Shakespeare’s death. But in doing so let’s remember, when we fiddle with the originals, that Shakespeare wrote poetry, understood drama and basically had an unerring instinct as to what works, better than any of us.
Review by Peter Yates
A nation in uproar. A leader in crisis. An unlikely successor waiting in the wings.
Richard II is Shakespeare’s great political drama about the seduction of power and the tragedy of losing it. This provocative new version uses Shakespeare’s original verse, but relocates the action to 21st century Westminster.
After a political heavyweight dies in mysterious circumstances, rifts emerge at the top of the British establishment. There are difficult questions for Richard, the nation’s leader. And Harri Bolingbroke, his charismatic cousin, wants answers.
Tim Delap (Jane Wenham, The Woman In Black) takes on the title role opposite Hermione Gulliford (3 Winters, Hotel at the National Theatre).
On the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, this bold production shows his continuing power to thrill and surprise us all. Following a premiere performance in the House of Commons, it transfers to Arcola for one week only.
David Acton – Duke of York / Thomas Mowbray
Eleanor Cox – Eleanor de Bohun / Green / Ross
Hayden Wood – Bagot
Hermione Gulliford – Harri Bolingbroke
Joseph Adelakun – Aumerle / Bushy / Willoughby
Natasha Bain – Isabel / Northumberland
Roland Oliver – John of Gaunt / Bishop of Carlisle
Tim Delap -Richard
Writer – William Shakespeare
Version / Direction – Jack Gamble & Quentin Beroud
Design – Emily Harwood
Light – Geoff Hense
Sound – Neil McKeown
Stage Manager – Olly Jacques
Fight Direction – Dave Rawlings
Creative Assistant – Lara Genovese
24 Ashwin St, London E8 3DL
3rd to 7th May 2016