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Richard II by William Shakespeare at the Jack Studio Theatre

There are two versions of the programme for this production of Richard II, both taking the form of newspaper articles. One is headed ‘Enemies of the People’, a headline previously made by the Daily Mail in November 2016, referring to High Court judges in a constitutional law case brought by Gina Miller and others. The ruling given by the judges was that the Government would need to get parliamentary approval to ‘trigger Article 50’, that is, give formal notice that the United Kingdom intended to withdraw its membership of the European Union. In the Mail’s opinion, the result of the referendum should have been sufficient approval in itself. The other programme is headed ‘Crush the Saboteurs’, another Daily Mail headline, published in April 2017, in reference to the General Election called by then Prime Minister Theresa May, the ‘saboteurs’ being, according to the sub-headline, “’game-playing’ Remoaners (including ‘unelected’ Lords)”.

Richard II at the Jack Studio TheatreHere, the ‘enemies of the people’ are John of Gaunt (Hilary Burns), Henry Bolingbroke (Fleur De Wit) and the Earl of Northumberland (Daniel Ghezzi). It’s Richard (Michael Rivers) who is out to ‘crush the saboteurs’. Aside from the headlines and some contemporary music that fills most of the scene changes, the story and the setting is unchanged (well, the outcome is the same). The costumes are largely modern, and Richard sports what I can only describe as something not unlike one of those cardboard crowns Burger King gives out when a children’s meal is purchased. If anything, it provides a tinge of light-heartedness in the Westminster Hall exchange in Act IV Scene I between Henry and Richard – all that fuss over a cheap hat.

The Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre production of Richard II in 2019 had a running time of two and a half hours (including an interval) – We Are Animate has it pared down to eighty minutes without one. While it is, perhaps inevitably, briskly paced, I didn’t feel short-changed or get the feeling that the show could have done with a greater exploration of any of the narrative points. It is considerably quieter than a show that involves plenty of conflict could have been, but a subtler approach suits the studio theatre space well. The intimate settings, and a cast of eight (the Old Vic production in 2005 had twenty-five, by contrast) not only amplified Richard’s isolation but also gave the audience the feeling that they were watching some very private discussions between people in positions of power, a ‘fly on the wall’, if you will.

Richard is sometimes tactless and makes bizarre decisions, to the point where a substantial number of people think he is not fit to lead the country. The parallels between him and the current (at the time of writing) leader of the ruling political party are patently obvious, though the production doesn’t, programme ‘headlines’ aside, reference present-day events in any way. The audience is thus engrossed in the story as it is. Placing women in several roles that would usually be played by men gives the show a fresh dynamic – and, indeed, raises the question as to whether life would be better under a female ruler, or if that ruler would have had to display masculine traits in the first place to get the crown, and then continue displaying those traits to keep wearing it. A thoughtful, brisk and accessible production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Amidst worldwide political turbulence, England faces societal crisis and open rebellion. Living a life of luxury within the crumbling Palace of Westminster, King Richard is increasingly unwilling to face the calamity his failing government has created.

As the façade of power begins to dissolve around him, the dramatic downfall of an extraordinary individual begins; an individual who is in equal measures both vivaciously captivating, and excruciatingly cruel.

We Are Animate are proud to present this new version of one of Shakespeare’s most subversive plays. In our own age of unprecedented political turmoil, this production explores the power and strength of femininity, and questions what traits are expected, and respected, in a leader.

Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, 410 Brockley Road, London, SE4 2DH
Dates: Tuesday 22 February to Saturday 5 March at 7.30pm.

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