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Richard II (St Leonard's, Shoreditch)

Shakespeare returns to a spiritual home in this production from Malachite Theatre

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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St Leonard's in Shoreditch is a church where it's believed Shakespeare himself worshipped as a nearby resident, and the first Hamlet - actor Richard Burbage - is buried here. The Malachite theatre company are currently resident in the church, whose beautiful interior makes it in principle the perfect site-specific space for a performance about an anointed king whose power, albeit God- given, is stripped from him.

But despite its majestic appearance, there's a serious problem with this church as a theatre. Its echoing acoustics eat up some of the voices and make others very difficult to distinguish, particularly when their backs are to the audience. This is a trial in the first half, where much of the vital plot exposition is lost.

However, set against this are a number of committed, powerful performances that lift Richard II back to life. John McEnery is excellent as John of Gaunt, whose sorrow over the banishment of his son is truly moving.

He also does justice to Gaunt's beautiful dying speech about his love for his country. McEnery makes a welcome return later as the head gardener, whose pruning, tying back and general rules for keeping things ship-shape would have made useful lessons for the now deposed Richard.

Martin Prest also builds the humiliated Henry Bolingbroke into an authoritative, regal figure as he makes his gradual transformation from outcast to King Henry IV.

Spoilt, petulant, greedy Richard is played by Nick Finegan as a man scarcely able to believe the spoils of his role are no longer his to enjoy - but shows us all too clearly why his nobles lose confidence in him and rally around the dispossessed Bolingbroke. After all, if one man's estate can be plundered in his absence, what security is there for any man's future? Finegan's performance is one of real quality, particularly in the deposition scene, and his parting with loyal Queen Isabella, so neglected during their marriage, is full of passion.

Rena Valeh gives a stately account of the Duchess of Gloucester, widowed and desperate for acknowledgement that her husband's murder must be avenged. And Claire Dyson pleads convincingly for her son, the traitorous Aumerle, to be spared by the new king.

The company are splendidly dressed in top quality period costumes borrowed from Shakespeare's Globe (though the Duke of York breaks the mould in his tweed jacket), and director Benjamin Blyth uses the potential of the church's architecture for dramatic effect - Richard faces the returning Bolingbroke from the lofty height of the choir stall.

This is a brave and at times distinguished production, but it needs to find the clarity that's so important in a densely plotted play like this.

Richard II continues until 28 July