The RSC scored a huge hit at Stratford this year with its History of England plays. This Richard II is the first of them to reach London and, judging by the standard of the production, it's not hard to see why the cycle has been acclaimed so highly.
Not only does director Steven Pimlott have a clear vision for the play, but he plainly points the way to future plays in the series with details such as the white rose carried by Richard as the Lancastrian Bolingbroke ascends the throne.
But let's not dwell too much on the future for there's plenty of meat in this cautionary tale alone. Pimlott begins the play with Richard's “I have been studying how I may compare this prison….” speech, setting out from the start, the constraints faced by the monarch. Richard comes to appreciate how isolated he is, and at the end, Bolingbroke (now Henry IV) takes up the theme. Ultimately, Richard II is about kingly power and its limitations, not the flawed personality of one individual, and it's here that Pimlott really scores.
Sam West's flighty, duplicitous, arrogant and overly-gay Richard is almost unable to comprehend the extent of Bolingbroke's revolt until the last possible moment. In this production, Aumerle is fashioned as his lover, an interesting twist, which makes Aumerle's participation in the anti-Henry plot more credible.
David Troughton's Bolingbroke, by contrast to Richard, is a blunt populist, a political brute who's relentless in his quest for power. Reinforcing his rough and ready direct appeal, Troughton turns repeatedly to the audience, at one point beseeching all to rise in prayer - it's easy to see how this charmer persuades the rest of the nobility to join him against an anointed king.
Backing up the two outstanding lead performances are some exceptionally strong supporting players. Christopher Saul's Northumberland is a ruthless and officious bureaucrat and Adam Levy a militaristically thuggish Percy. My only doubt is over David Killick's rather camp York who doesn't convince as someone whose word holds such sway.
Still, this is a truly outstanding production: an intelligent, well-acted interpretation of one of Shakespeare's greatest plays. And at a time when the question of what is nationhood is much debated, it provides plenty of stimulation for the mind.
Note: The following review dates from April 2000 and this production's original run in Stratford-upon-Avon.
This is a wonderful production, but it will not be to everyone's taste. If you like your theatre to be a charming box of delights with beautiful period costumes and elaborate sets, then forget it. But if you enjoy demanding drama which is powerful, intense and challenging, then Steven Pimlott's studio version of Richard II is for you.
In a bare white room, the earthen mound of a freshly filled grave, a few chairs and a crude wooden box (which eventually becomes Richard's coffin) are the only set. The costumes are present-day, but there is none of the distraction of fussy 'modern dress'. Both setting and play are stripped down to their bare essentials. The romantic Richard is gone; this is an analysis of power politics at its most uncompromising. The story of the deposition and murder of King Richard II and his replacement by Bolingbroke as King Henry IV is a grim exercise in realpolitik.
Samuel West is a youthful Richard, imperious in public, indulgent and relaxed in private with his feisty fashion-model wife and trio of young flatterers. Bushy, Bagot and Green have rarely been so recognisable - repellent yuppie lads who lounge and jeer. But when Bushy - wonderfully played by Paul McEwan - is summarily executed, it's a genuinely shocking moment which transforms the mood of the entire play.
This is a serious evening's entertainment, and the only laughter comes at the over-done militarism of Adam Levy's Harry Hotspur. But those laughs die in our throats when he suddenly murders Bushy in cold-blood with a hand-gun fitted with a silencer; the soft click making far more impact than any ringing shot.
The acting is uniformly good, from West's mesmerising Richard and David Troughton's terrifying Bolingbroke, right through the cast to Tim Treloar who, in his first year's work in theatre, plays half a dozen minor roles quite faultlessly. Alexis Daniel as Aumerle, Richard's young cousin and lieutenant, moves us deeply with his own personal tragedy, in a play in which there are few characters to admire or to pity.
In the deposition scene, Richard reminds us of the spiritual aspect of medieval monarchy by wearing a crown of thorns made of English roses. But Henry Bolingbroke's power is based on arms and military might, against which Richard's claim to authority by divine right rapidly crumbles.
If anyone is so naive and foolish to believe that politics is an honourable profession for decent men and women, they should see this play. They'll soon be disillusioned. This is a Richard II for the year 2000, Shakespeare at the cutting edge.
Richard II opened at The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, 29 March 2000 (previews from 20 March) and continued there in repertory until 5 October 2000.