Theatre: Richard II
Rivkah Brown enjoyed this year's Easter Term Shakespeare
by Rivkah Brown
Wednesday 2nd May 2012, 14:15 BST
Everyone knows what to expect from a comedy, and what from a tragedy. Shakespeare’s history plays, however, offer a third genre, and are a spanner in the works of our deeply-ingrained theatrical binary.
George Johnston’s production got off to a wobbly start as it struggled to find its place between the two genres, as Richard’s whimsy (though delivered beautifully by Alex Gomar) grated against the fighting talk of Mowbray and Bolingbroke. Nor was I entirely sure what to make of the pre-dual chest-bump shared by these two. Joey Akubeze, however, impressed with a defiant Mowbray, and seemed at home in Shakespeare’s often alienating verse; which perhaps comes as no surprise given his work with the National Youth Music Theatre.
Oddly, it is unusual nowadays to encounter a production of Shakespeare that is not in some way modernised, be it in setting or language. Johnston riskily committed to a period production, but saw it off with flourish. Kat Addis and Ella Hubbard did a great job of sourcing costumes that were appropriate to each level of society, from the ruby red kingly garb to the gardener’s cloth shirt and breeches.
That the show had a dedicated ‘Fight Director’ ought to earn the production another star in itself. Fights are crucial to a play like this: get them wrong, and you are left with an infantile tussle. Get them right, and you can simultaneously terrify and exhilarate your audience. This was especially true of the final battle scene, where the desperation of the dethroned king was laid bare. The scene resonated with notes of King Lear, surely a compliment to any play.
Yet the lifeblood of any period production of Shakespeare, and indeed to any production of Shakespeare, is language. As Johnston points out in his note to the programme, Richard II is unusual in being a Shakespeare play written entirely in verse. Though some seemed determined to deliver their lines as if reciting a long poem, many showed a more invigorated approach: in particular Lucy Farrett as the Queen, and Ed Rowett as John of Gaunt.
I was less blown away by some of the makeup choices made by Zoe d’Avignon. This may be my shortsightedness speaking, but when the curtain went up on Richard’s court, I was confronted by what appeared to be a troop of china dolls. An overzealous effort to make Rowett resemble an ageing Gaunt had produced a swarthy figure more closely resembling a member of the Adams Family. Easy on the stage makeup, perhaps.
Such flaws, however, are clearly not fundamental. Other minor details were handled far more competently: in fact, attention to detail was one of the production’s strengths. The smirk that broke across Richard’s face as Gaunt tumbled pitiably to his feet; the warm, heartbroken kisses shared by Richard and his Queen after his usurpation; even the wifely, well-intentioned idiocy of the Duchess of York (Laura Jayne Ayres was a comic hit).
I had been afraid that the comedy might drown out the tragedy, and go down the route of an unfortunate ‘Carry on Richard’. However it was in these small moments where the comedy combined with the tragedy, and in doing so was soured, altered, offset. Richard, it sinisterly emerged, would not have the last laugh.
Last updated: Wednesday 2nd May 2012, 14:18 BST