Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

William Shakespeare, The Tragedie of King Richard II (Directed by Joe Hill-Gibbons, Almeida Theatre, live relay)

So more bard — I have a vague memory of a Nottingham Playhouse production and at least one War of the Roses cycle, and of course Ben Wishaw played a rather fey version on the telly… Simon Russell Beale in contrast has an air of camp in what is a stripped down, eight person, single set, hundred minute version.

The trimming has also included some reshaping — his speech “I have been studying how I may compare / This prison where I live unto the world” from Act V Scene V is the opening line, as the deposed king reflects on how he got there. He is trapped on stage, as are the other actors, sometime lying in foetal positions, sometimes pressed against the wall. Eight buckets — labelled soil, water, blood — a crown and workers’ gloves are about the only props. England is a totalitarian police state, with plotters everywhere, and listening ears. There’s a fearful inevitability about what is to come.

Honour and reputation seems at the heart of the play — Bolingbroke demands satisfaction from someone who has wronged him, but is exiled rather than allowed to duel. When his sentence is reduced, this seems more weakness on the king’s part than mercy. Returning to reclaim his titles, he worries about deposing a rightful king and is traumatised by his murder — the play ends with him off on a pilgrimage. In the meantime he has faced a new generation of bickering nobles and has the same weaknesses as Richard.

There are also lines about being absent from the sun, with the same emotion as the Doctor Faustus hell as absent from heaven and hell. Someone in the background in a coming winter of discontent.

Beale is splendid and game, with bucket after bucket, and Leo Bill holds his own, just about, as Bolingbroke, but with doubling without costume changes it’s hard to pin down lords and bishops and princesses as distinct. You just have to go along with the flow and ponder whether that John of Gaunt speech about sceptred isles is as straightforwardly patriotic as it might seem. And how it maps onto Elizabeth II and the Earl of Essex, especially as then Essex seems not to come out of it that well.

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