Riddle me this. What do you get when you cross the work of Stratford-upon-Avon’s greatest playwright with London’s oldest church and the world stage? You get Scena Mundi’s wonderful production of William Shakespeare’s “Richard II” at St Bartholomew The Great, London.
It is 1398 and King Richard II (Pip Brignall) is reigning in all his majestic glory. Unfortunately, two members of Richard’s court – Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford (Ben Higgins) and Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk (Patrick Oldham) – are at loggerheads with the former accusing the latter of treason against the king and the murder of his uncle the Duke of Gloucester, although there is suspicion in some perpetrated by the Duchess of Gloucester (Eluned Hawkins) that Richard himself may have been involved in the act. By the way there are a lot of people with titles in this play so try to keep up. A duel is called for and Richard along with his uncle – and Bolingbroke’s father – John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (Graham Pountney) try to calm the men who are determined to allow God to judge the merit of their various arguments. Rather than see the death of his friend and cousin, Richard banishes both Bolingbroke (for six years) and Mowbray (for life) from the kingdom. This proves to be the start of Richard’s undoing.
Believing that he is God’s anointed and surrounded by sycophantic courtiers, Richard believes he can do no wrong. He gets into a disastrous war in Ireland, and is forced to tax the people (noble and peasant) heavily to pay for it. As the war isn’t going that well, Richard leaves his kingdom, and his queen (Anna Buckland) in the hands of another of his uncles, Edmund of Langley, Duke of York (Rupert Bates). Learning of this, Bolingbroke returns to England faster than a tabby through a cat-flap, in an attempt to regain his title, lands and money – appropriated by Richard on the death of his father – and, more importantly, the throne itself. Given the dislike felt by the nobles towards Richard, Bolingbroke doesn’t have to work too hard to get them to come over to his side and soon, he is ready to make his move. Richard, abandoned by all except the Duke of Au merle (Edward Fisher) seems to accept the inevitable stating ‘O that I were a mockery king of snow. Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke. To melt myself away in water drops!’ and at last Bolingbroke is crowned Henry IV, bringing peace throughout the kingdom as a new era of kingship commences. Of course, this is Shakespeare so that is not the end for both Richard and Bolingbroke as life still has some surprises in store.
Scena Mundi obviously realised that a church would be the ideal setting for Richard II, and whoever found Bartholomew the Great really should be commended. Even the Globe, which I love, pales into insignificance in the face of this magnificent example of a 12th Century religious building. Played along the chancel and nave in front of the high altar – where the throne is placed – I cannot think of a better setting for Shakespeare’s wonderful words. Director Cecilia Dorland uses the space perfectly and there is some wonderful lighting from God who slowly takes away the daylight coming through the windows as a fantastic metaphor for the sinking of Richard’s bright, sunny reign. Being so close to the actors, the audience are directly involved in the action – indeed often treated as members of the court observing the political machinations of the high nobility. There is a wonderful moment in the first act when Bolingbroke and Mowbray are preparing to face each other in the duelling ring and the King’s face reflects the anguish and unhappiness he feels at the potential death of either his cousin or friend. A beautiful piece of physical acting from Pip Brignall. But all of the cast give a truly powerful performance and, Shakespeare’s words echo beautifully around the building – particularly my own favourite quote, said by John of Gaunt just before his death;
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
which Graham Pountney delivered with such power, emotion and vigour he left everyone breathless by the end.
As well as ‘Richard II” Scena Mundi are running Marlowe’s “Edward II” as part of their ‘Death of Kings’ season, described as ‘two accounts of the tragedy of power and the conflict between the private drama of the ruler and the public drama of state affairs. Two monarchs whose private passions get in the way of their political duty’ and based on what I saw, they are both going to be amazing I can’t think of a better setting to see such wonderful work
Review by Terry Eastham
Scena Mundi’s “Richard II” dazzles with its costume and choreography set in the soaring medieval grandeur of St.Bartholomew the Great. There is no time like the present for Artistic Director & Company Founder Cecilia Dorland as the London stage is set for an epic year for Shakespeare’s King of Snow: The Globe and RSC at Barbican have their own productions in July and November respectively.
King Richard (Pip Brignall) with his dramatic verse reflects off every edifice of the glorious St.Bartholomew. Pip relishes his opportunity; “Playing Richard is such a privilege. He’s one of the most fascinating Kings in our history; the opportunity to play such a beautifully written role is a dream come true”.
A strikingly energetic, passionate and talented cast includes Edmund Sage-Green (Bolingbroke), Graham Pountney (John of Gaunt) and Anna Buckland (Queen Isabelle) “we only see her (Queen Isabelle) in very emotionally charged moments of her journey so I hope to bring some heart to Richard’s story”.
Resident company at C12th St.Bartholomew since they opened with “Murder in the Cathedral” in May 2014 they have swiftly recognised the importance of their fortune – with the church in dire need of funding to make extensive restorations and Smithfields General Market on the verge of redevelopment, Scena Mundi aims to be at the heart of a cultural renaissance in the area.
Scena Mundi’s “Sad Stories of the Death of Kings” season is set to establish the classical theatre company and its reputation for fine verse delivery, exceptional costume design, choreography and of course a breathtaking venue.
Penny Rischmiller follows a classical brief for Dorland’s “Richard II” with beautifully tailored period pieces that will have the power to forgo the need for big set design. Rischmiller’s love of all things outrageous will be saved for the radical approach to “Edward II” which runs alongside from 15th May. But this attention to detail and remarkably delicate approach to costume is the glory of her talent.
Sad Stories of the Death of Kings
Richard II – 8th May to 3rd July
Edward II – 19th May to 2nd July
St.Bartholomew-the-Great, West Smithfield, EC1A 9DS
Thursday 28th May 2015