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Review: The Tragedy of King Richard II, at Almeida Theatre

27 December, 2018 — By Tom Foot

Simon Russell Beale and Leo Bill in The Tragedy of King Richard II. Photo: Marc Brenner

IT already feels like Brexit has been droning on for centuries, and this week I discovered even Shakespeare was labouring on the topic back in 1595.

The Almeida’s programme notes pitch the play firmly in the context of the EU uproar and debate about Theresa May’s leadership and political authority.

The vacillating King Richard’s belief in his own divine right and reckless disdain for the common man is compared to an attitude that “leads a prime minister to call a referendum on the assumption they cannot lose”.

Fortunately, none of this has been crowbarred into Joe Hill-Gibbins’ two-hour, no-interval production charitably described as “bold” by some eminent reviewers. I’d go with cold.

The set is dark, barren and claustrophobic save for several plastic buckets marked water, soil and blood. The King’s train of indistinguishable yesmen stumble about in yabbering cliques. They shout and scream and hurl the buckets at one another. There are some very loud passages that left me desperately seeking solace in Simon Russell Beale’s softly spoken soliloquies.

His Richard is enthrallingly meek, pompous and self-loathing. You yearn for the grand windbag’s comeuppance – and this did not disappoint. First a bucket of water on the head, later a bucket of soil, then another bucket of water. And then one of blood before, after crawling around in the muck, he finally kicks the bucket.

There is some elegant verse and two very famous passages – “the death of kings” and the “this sceptred isle”, but my favourite bit about sleep was butchered by Bolingbroke (Leo Bill). The play is early Shakespeare, and was by 1601 black-marked by his own company as “old and long out of use”.

The brilliant Beale is the saviour but the production, like the Brexit fuss, felt tired and lacking real depth and is perhaps undeserving of his talents.

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