Trevor Nunn’s modern-dress interpretation of Richard II - the first time he’s tackled this play - takes an unashamedly political stance. Anything that places proceedings in the context of the Middle Ages has been removed – gone is Carlisle’s prophetic speech and Henry’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Stripped of such mediaeval fixtures, we’re presented with a 21st-century political fable which concentrates on the seizure and maintenance of power.
Bolingbroke’s succession is more like a coup d’etat as the ruling order is rudely shattered. John of Gaunt’s deathbed speech is not merely an epitaph for a dying England, but a rallying cry for the people. Nunn clearly implies that Bolingbroke doesn’t reach power by accident - his is a clearly planned and implemented takeover.
The regime changes are obvious. The peers in Richard’s court parade in their regalia; Bolingbroke’s entourage are content with lounge suits. Where Richard appears to the strains of “Zadok the Priest”, Bolingbroke uses “Fanfare of the Common Man” – an effective piece of propaganda for someone who is no less royal blood than the king.
The stand-out performance for me is Ben Miles’ Bolingbroke, the consummate player. Looking like a New Labour apparatchik (he even slightly resembles Peter Hain), his is a statesman prepared to use any and every form of spin. But there’s also an excellent turn from Peter Eyre as York, trying to tread the line between loyalty to a king and a sense of what’s right for the country. As John of Gaunt, Julian Glover resembles a political grandee adrift the confines of his club, while anxiously promoting his son’s claims to the throne. And Oliver Cotton’s Northumberland is a smooth opportunist, Bolingbroke’s ready ally.
Naturally, much of the interest focuses on Kevin Spacey, taking on the title character here for his UK Shakespearean debut. While he takes some time to ease into his role, after the interval, he is magnificent, shedding his kingly robes and trappings – not resisting one last chance to sit on the throne with his royal accoutrements as if scarcely able to comprehend the loss of his authority.
I do find the growing obsession with on-stage video cameras and footage tiring. Here, Nunn’s use of clips of modern royal entourages is somewhat strange – the political machinations in this production seem far removed from the royal soap opera.
Like Spacey, this Richard II feels as if it needs some time to get into its full stride. On the press night, there were a few fluffed lines (not to mention a power cut) to contend with. I’m sure the production can only improve as the run continues; even now, it makes me want to see more of Shakespearean Spacey.
- Maxwell Cooter