This bold and taut new production of the Shakespeare classic is currently running at the Almeida in Islington, and takes inspiration both from the political landscape and playground games where one child comes out the conqueror.
In a cast of eight, Simon Russell Beale adds another major character from the Bard to his portfolio, having previously triumphed as Hamlet, Macbeth, Iago, Prospero, Richard III and Lear. During the show he has water, soil and blood thrown at him, and becomes a pitiful figure in his grief and broken arrogance.
This production is visceral, intimate and intense. The killing of traitorous courtiers is shocking in its speed, leaving the blood literally running down the walls of the sparse plasterboard box which serves as the set. The gardeners who tend Richard’s prison garden turn on him with buckets of earth raining on his head, leaving the king literally lying in the filth that represents how low his star has fallen.
There are numerous character changes with such a small cast – Saskia Reeves, for example, moves from banished Mowbray to cunning sycophant to pleading Duchess. Leo Bill, as Bolingbroke, made me think briefly of David Troughton in the same role for the RSC close to two decades ago: another modern dress production with a weak and piteous Richard, crushed by vanity and ambition, bettered by a strong and centred usurper.
Some textual changes mean the lines within the prison are repeated at both ends of this 1 hour and 40 minute production, and a bold decision is taken to end with the now King Henry’s Holy Land speech dissolving into the giggles the school bully might express after tormenting his victims.
With the cast dressed in casual clothes, the only props the crown of the king and the buckets utilised to drench various characters, the focus is very much on the game of politics, monarchy, and dominance. Joe Hill-Gibbins directs a tight piece which might not always hit the mark, but is never less than interesting.
To compare Beale’s Richard with others I have seen is instructive – David Tennant was full of pomp and ceremony, Samuel West a lost and petulant little boy. Beale is a bit of both, and his verse speaking is head and shoulders above some of his colleagues here (Joseph Mydell’s John of Gaunt was particularly disappointing in his well-known speech, but yet still gained sympathy is his time of death, pleading for the legacy of his banished son).
This may not be a production I rave about for years, but it is definitely worth a look, and if your pockets don’t stretch to the (admittedly reasonable) Almeida prices, this production shows in NT Live soon.