It has taken Shakespeare at The Tobacco Factory artistic director Andrew Hilton 12 seasons to reach one of the histories. He has made a wise choice, though, in Shakespeare’s vivid and violent tragedy, moulding the verse seamlessly into the dramatic action in his company’s signature style of forceful yet intimate playing.
The account of Richard’s decline from autocratic king into pitiable, imprisoned figure, contemplating his own private doom, demands a large cast but has only a handful of key characters. The king is both young and headstrong, and Hilton’s casting of a young and sensitive actor, John Heffernan, already highly thought of at the National Theatre, is central to the teasing out of the delusional belief that brings about the fatal decision to exile his cousin Henry Bullingbrooke (the original, Shakespearean spelling).
His understanding of the burdens of kingship is quite stunningly illustrated in the beautifully phrased ‘Hollow Crown’ speech, and throughout this is a more sympathetic and thoughtful view of Richard than is sometimes the case.
Matthew Thomas rightly portrays a ruthless, blustering opponent in Bullingbrooke, although also showing signs of anxiety at the overthrow of an anointed monarch at the end. Benjamin Whitrow’s fragile John of Gaunt benefits from the very best of the poetry, as does Roland Oliver, whose upstanding Duke of York acts as a sort of all-seeing chorus figure. Among the generally rather shadowy female characters, Ffion Jolly is a sad and helpless queen, while Julia Hills ‘double-duchesses’ effectively as the respective Ladies of Gloucester and York.