After a long wait Michael Boyd’s cycle of history plays has finally reached London and while the Roundhouse doesn’t quite have the intimacy of the Courtyard Theatre, it’s a pretty good approximation.
Richard II is probably Shakespeare’s most politically daring play; a piece that shows the deposing of a monarch that succeeds. There’s also an uncomfortable modern parallel that wasn’t there when the show commenced its epic run – the country’s bankrupt finances that force Richard into the confiscation of Gaunt’s property.
But the politics in this play often take second place to the more human struggle between Richard and Bolingbroke and the main questions that every director has to consider: how much is Richard a bad king? And while he’s undoubtedly a poor king, are Bolingbroke’s actions justifiable?
“Know you not that I am Richard?” Queen Elizabeth is reputed to have said and Boyd seems to have had the monarch in mind for his portrayal of the king: Jonathan Slinger’s white make-up and the ginger wig are reminiscent of Gloriana herself – although he looked and sounded more like John Hurt’s impersonation of Quentin Crisp.
But Slinger is too good to present the king purely as an effeminate mannequin. There’s steel behind the make-up and when he strips off his wig and wipes off his make-up in the abdication, we’re reminded that this isn’t just about the transfer of power but about the human tragedy too. Clive Wood’s plain-speaking Bolingbroke is less a manipulator than someone caught up in events beyond his control, one certainly got the sense of a man caught up in powers beyond his control.
Perhaps the best performance of all was Richard Cordery’s York: a manifestly decent man trying to balance duty to his monarch with what he sees is right for the country. Cordery brings out all the hesitation in York’s voice as he’s clearly torn between two conflicting beliefs.
Boyd has presented us with a society ill at ease with itself but not dramatically sundered. By the end of the play, society is as shattered as the glass in the mirror that Richard asks for. Unusually, Richard’s murder is carried out not by Exton but by the king’s former favourite, Baggot, a vivid sign of shifting loyalties and a precursor of what is to follow.