Simon Russell Beale and Leo Bill. Photo: Marc Brenner
Richard II by William Shakespeare – Almeida Theatre, London
As a radical rethinker of the classics, Joe Hill-Gibbins’ reputation continues to rise. Having made his name at the Young Vic with unforgettable versions of The Changeling, Measure for Measure and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in highly effective, abstract settings, he is now paired with Britain’s foremost classical actor, Simon Russell Beale, for his first outing at the Almeida. He does not disappoint, staging a cut-back version of Richard II in a galvanised steel box. His production exposes the combination of visceral brutality and the Beckettian introspection that, conventionally, emerges gradually from behind the play’s veil of pomp and finery. The production is inherently divisive, and the critics have obliged but, only three days into the year, it is very hard to imagine a more exciting or compelling Shakespeare coming along in 2019.
Simon Russell Beale can play what he wants where he pleases, so it is to his credit that he chooses to work with a young director with such a powerful vision. He has never played Richard and is older than the standard casting, but his performance is a treat well worth the wait. Up close, the subtlety of his acting – every flick of the hand, every twitch of the eyelid serving a purpose – is spellbinding, and his verse speaking, as always, makes the lines seem entirely fresh. Hill-Gibbins begins the play with the prison soliloquy – “I have been studying how I may compare / This prison where I live to the world” – and repeats it in its proper place. Russell Beale presents the two versions, delivered as prologue and again in the thick of degradation and despair, with entirely different emphasis. Second time around, after a chaotic and destructive power struggle, his conclusion that “Nor I nor any man that but man is / With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased / With being nothing” does not carry the conviction that he will come to terms with his fate. It is a masterful study in analysis and delivery.
This cut and reordered text is the jumping off point for a stripped back production that throws expectations out of the window, removing the play from its specific time and politics, and placing all the focus on the destructive rivalry that pulls apart a political elite. The set, by Ultz, is a box equipped with buckets of the most basic substances – water, soil and blood – which are emptied, one by one, over the protagonists. The lighting is almost entirely provided by a strip light roof panel, and the only music is an insistent clock-like ticking. The entire cast of eight are on stage throughout, a group huddled in a corner or, crouching in despair mid-stage as the performance continues around them. The stage is a cage, trapping everyone in an impossible cycle of ritualised violence, culminating in the glove-throwing scene in which everyone challenges everyone else, an episode that is both ludicrous and charged with violence.
Hill-Gibbins has a knack for identifying much-loved but somewhat underrated performers, and the casting in Richard II is a excellent example of this. Leo Bill’s Bolingbroke is not the usual menacing, confident presence but a skittery, upper-class twit, well out of his depth as the kingdom divides around him even before his coronation is complete. Joseph Mydell’s Gaunt gasps accusatory poetry. Multiple roles are persuasively and subtly played by John Mackay, Saskia Reeves, Robin Weaver, Natalie Klamar and Martins Imhangbe. Gender-blind casting has been dismissed as ‘fashionable’, but an approach that puts fine actors such as Reeves, Weaver and Klamar at the heart of male-dominated drama is far more significant than that. It adds an essential depth to our classical theatre, and promises a renewal that no-one seems to predicted.
Played with no interval and a running time of 100 minutes, the intricacy and context of the play’s politics are inevitably lost. However, this is a price worth paying for such a thrilling production. The audience hang on every word and Hill-Gibbins’ conceptual approach pays off, as the confusion between multiple nobles and plots becomes part of a spiral into disaster that drags everyone down. The universal destruction wrought by weak, power-hungry leaders in this play has never been shown more starkly. The clarity and confidence of this production makes it a must-see, and puts down a marker that promise an increasingly exciting future for this director and for the plays he lays his bold hands on.