Review: The Tragedy of King Richard the Second (Almeida Theatre)

Simon Russell Beale plays the overthrown monarch in this truncated version of Shakespeare’s ”Richard II”

Simon Russell Beale and Leo Bill
Simon Russell Beale and Leo Bill
© Marc Brenner

We begin somewhere near the end. Simon Russell Beale as Richard II steps forward. "I have been studying how I may compare/This prison where I live unto the world." It's a spine-tingling moment, as he embarks on the great soliloquy, ending with the unbearable sadness of "with being nothing."

This is the moment when the fallen king admits the limitations of his power, finds his humanity. And it is a bold stroke from director Joe Hill-Gibbins to plunge in and to present everything that follows as Richard's feverish remembrance of how he reached this point. But the promise of that gesture is not sustained by what follows.

The other characters stand, dressed in casual clothes, pressed against the steel-panelled, riveted walls of Ultz's confining box of a set, just a hint of light falling from the frosted glass ceiling above. They race through their actions, in stylised, impressionistic scenes. They race through the text too, bringing the play down to just an hour and forty minutes, like speed Shakespeare.

Some scenes (beautifully choreographed, with characters pinging from the walls) have a visceral energy. The challenges where hurled gloves pile up like stones; the moments when King Richard confronts his usurper Bolingbroke like two boxers squaring up for a fight. But Hill-Gibbins strips so much out of the play there is not much left to cling onto. The programme notes suggest that he wants it to read like a study of contemporary power, where people's poor decisions about the limits of their authority breed chaos.

But it doesn't quite feel like that while it is unfolding. I am not sure if you would follow what is going on if you didn't already understand the play quite well. And the decision to make Bolingbroke (Leo Bill) behave like a spoilt and frightened child, a brawling boy who is just as unable to exert control as the vain and changeable Richard makes nonsense of the play's careful appositions.

If you are going to take a radical approach to a classic text (which I much favour) then you should illuminate it. This feels as if it is shrouding Richard II in darkness, making it grim and pointless. There's a modishness about Hill-Gibbins' approach that feels tiresome: it is one thing to have buckets full of water, soil and blood around at the back of the stage, ready to be chucked at characters at symbolic moments; it is another to have them neatly, irritatingly labelled.

What saves the night, however, is the power of Russell Beale's performance. He can convey as much with the flicker of a wary eye, the slight movement of his chin, as any directorial intervention. He speaks the language as rapidly as the rest of the cast, but never loses his grip on its shape and heft. He finds in the words the anger, pride, narcissism and finally the overwhelming sense of failure that define his character and the themes of the play. Just the way he says "Fair cousin", confronting his nemesis in the deposition scene, is an object lesson in understanding and conveying the sense of every word.

He is magnificent. Elsewhere, the players cope well with switching between multiple parts, Saskia Reeves in particular making an impact as various cringing courtiers. Joseph Mydell is a wonderfully expressive Gaunt and Robin Weaver a fierce Northumberland.

But it's a chilly evening, one that restores the play's original title, but then subverts its purpose by making Shakespeare a post-dramatic playwright. Radical isn't always revelatory. This felt like heavy-sledding.