Tag Archives: almeida theatre

The Tragedy of King Richard The Second (Almeida Theatre)

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. Simon Russell Beale as Richard. Photo by Marc Brenner.

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.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. Martins Imhangbe, Leo Bill, Simon Russell Beale, Saskia Reeves, Robin Weaver. Photo by Marc Brenner.

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.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. Simon Russell Beale as the King, and the cast. Photo by Marc Brenner.

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.

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King Lear (Almeida Theatre)

Over a year ago I booked for the latest in a long line of theatrical Lears, this time with Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce, who has been a favourite of mine since my schooldays when the film Brazil was released. So I was intrigued to see how he would do in the greatest of all mature Shakespearian roles, and how Michael Attenborough’s production would present the story of betrayal, ageing, and intrigue.

In a sparse set with a trapdoor, a handful of entrances, and some magic dust in the form of the lightning storm which plagues Lear and his followers, all our attention is on the performers, and as the Almeida is a small space any audience member is in the thick of the action, which might be something to be aware of if you are squeamish in any way about fake blood and eye gouging!

As well as Pryce as lead name in the cast, his three daughters are played by Zoe Waites (Goneril), Jenny Jules (Regan), and Phoebe Fox (Cordelia). As Cordelia is a small role in comparison to her sisters, whether or not she is memorable is squarely on the shoulders of the actress playing her – and although Fox makes the early map scene vibrant with her spitting anger and contempt for her sisters, she becomes less interesting once she becomes the Queen of France. Waites is a terrific Goneril, a true serpent bitch, while Jules plays Regan as – to my eyes – a damaged daughter, perhaps abused in some way by her doting father? Because there is a definite hint of incestuous attraction here, which makes a viewer uncomfortable and takes away a bit of sympathy from our wronged king. If this line of plot is to be taken into account, this man deserves to have the doors closed upon him.

Edmund (Kieran Bew) is less successful at his characterisation than Edgar (Richard Goulding), while Clive Wood makes an excellent Earl of Gloucester. As the exiled, disguised Kent, Ian Gelder is good, but he doesn’t dispel memories long held of another Kent for the National Theatre, Ian McKellen (himself one of two superb Lears I have seen, the other being Tom Courtenay). The others in the cast are less important, and with a bit of doubling up all bases are covered.

So what of Jonathan Pryce’s Lear? His is one of frustration and black comedy rather than tragic dementia, although the ‘I believe this lady to be my child’ bit was moving, as was the sequence with the dead Cordelia. Scenes with the Fool were well done, and the opening map and banishing of Cordelia/Kent scene had all the might of majesty the role requires. So I wasn’t disappointed, and I recommend this production to Shakespeare beginners and aficianados alike.

(One word for the staff member in the circle, though – paying customers don’t want to hear creaky seats throughout, ok?).


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