Uh-oh. What’s he done this time? In recent years, Joe Hill-Gibbins has earned himself a reputation as a director unafraid to stage outrageously bold productions of Shakespeare. In 2015, he did Measure for Measure on a pile of sex dolls. Last year, he put A Midsummer Night’s Dream on a field of mud.
Now, he’s taking charge of Richard II at the Almeida, under its weighty full title The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. And he’s got one hell of a Richard: Simon Russell Beale, squeezing in some more Shakespeare in between the National Theatre and West End runs of The Lehman Trilogy.
Beale is joined by Leo Bill, a regular Hill-Gibbins collaborator, as Bolingbroke, in a production designed by Ulyz that runs until early February.
What unexpected aesthetic has Hill-Gibbins thought up this time? How do Beale and Bill do as Shakespeare’s kingly competitors? Do the critics cap off a stellar year for the Almeida by certifying it another hit show? Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Hill-Gibbins has decided, as it turns out, to abridge the text drastically, stuff his staging inside a big, metal box, and put it on fast forward. “The slow roast of misfortune has become a microwave oven,” likens Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★★).
“Richard tends to be depicted as a king encased in ceremony, but this interpretation strips away the regal rituals,” describes Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★). “The action takes place inside a grim, grey box, and instead of representing kingship as a gilded pageant, it paints political life as a disgusting mess. Buckets of blood, soil and water sit on the stage, neatly labelled and waiting to be thrown over the cast.”
Most critics reckon this startling staging has a powerful effect. “It turns civil war into a cage-fight to the death,” writes Matt Trueman (Variety), while Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★) finds it “a fresh and challenging evening”, Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★) labels it “swift, strange and pretty brilliant,” and Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★) calls it a “brisk, sardonic, gore-spattered take on the play.”
Even Letts, who usually hates productions that make a mess, hails Hill-Gibbins. “We gain a clever sense of the gawping of political onlookers as courtiers tiptoe round the edge of the set, striking tableaux of eavesdropping gossip; the wall-battering pressure of events; the confusion around state affairs,” he says. “It acquires the artistry almost of choreography.”
The contemporary resonances aren’t lost on the critics, either. “I’m afraid it really does feel like modern politics,” assesses Ann Treneman (The Times, ★★★★). “Brexit but with kings.”
It’s not too everyone’s taste, though. Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★) complains of “irksome theatrical disruption” clouding Beale’s central performance, Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★) reckons its “heavier on concept than clarity”, and Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★) warns that “radical isn’t always revelatory.”
“We are watching a rehearsal-room exercise rather than a full–blown realisation of Shakespeare’s polyphonic play,” moans Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★). “There’s plenty here to infuriate purists,” retorts Hitchings, “but it’s a timely portrait of a country in chaos.”
Arguably, the main draw here, though, is not Hill-Gibbins’ experimentation, but Simon Russell Beale. The man commonly referred to as our foremost Shakespearean has tackled most of the major roles – Hamlet, Iago, Lear, Prospero. Now, undoubtedly older than most who take the part, he’s giving his Richard II.
And, of course, he’s doing a fine job of it. He does “incredibly well” according to Bano, is “predictably superb” according to me (Exeunt), and supplies “an acting masterclass” according to Cavendish.
“He can convey as much with the flicker of a wary eye, the slight movement of his chin, as any directorial intervention,” extols Crompton. “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.”
“He is magnificent,” she confirms, while Lukowski writes how “this most elegant of performers makes the most of the wilfully stilted body language and breakneck verse speaking”, and Rachel Halliburton (The Arts Desk, ★★★★) describes his Richard as “narcissistic, petulant and indecisive.”
“On one level, this great actor is now too old for the part (he reminds you more of Lear at moments) but the idea of the piece as anguished retrospect gives his seniority a haunting emotional resonance,” adds Taylor. “I’ve never felt that more keenly than here, where Russell Beale confronts the “nothingness” of his unkinged condition as a frantic identity crisis. He veers between hyperventilating panic and furious shafts of the old assumed entitlement.”
“Even when Beale is looking ordinary, hands near hips, portly in his black t-shirt and trousers, or adopts a street-pugilist air – bearded chin jutting, eyes boggling, fists clenched, snarling in his adversaries’ faces – he commands attention,” gushes Cavendish. “And when he speaks, there’s never a dull syllable.”
“Beale, yes, is far too old for a Richard,” sums up Letts. “And yet, as this fallen king bleakly ponders his errors, the casting makes sense. Few do quiet, eloquent despair as well as Mr Russell Beale.”
Alongside Beale is Leo Bill, a panicky, hippy-ish Bottom in Hill-Gibbins’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream two years ago, here taking on the role of Richard’s usurper, Henry Bolingbroke, latterly Henry IV.
He is also, the critics agree, great. He puts in “a brilliant performance” for Lukowski, captures the character’s “slippery intelligence” for Hitchings, and for me, he supplies “perhaps the finest performance of his career to date as a wheedling, insecure Bolingbroke.”
“Bill finds himself in power and surrounded by murderous morons, who go around killing people they think the new king doesn’t like,” describes Bano. “The look of bewilderment on Bill’s face as they all throw down their gloves in succession is priceless, a look he quickly veils as he tries to regain the composure commensurate with being king.”
“He looks increasingly on the verge of losing his lunch as his various underlings hurl themselves into baffling feuds,” chimes Lukowski. “In the most audaciously comic scene in Hill-Gibbins’s production, the entire rest of the cast lob their gauntlets down at each other in a byzantine series of petty challenges, while Bolingbroke clutches his head in numb disbelief.”
“Traditionally, Richard’s usurper is a steadfast, strong-headed man of the people, but not here,” I add. “Hopping about as if he’s treading on hot coals, and whimpering in the face of real obstruction, even when he robs Richard of the crown. It’s a character reading that fits entirely with the rest of the show.”
You can’t please everyone, though.
“Although Leo Bill is a perfectly serviceable Bolingbroke, he never suggests either the crowd-pleasing populist or the ruthless schemer of Shakespeare’s text,” intones Billington.
Most critics reckon so, and four-star reviews abound. Hill-Gibbins has supplied a stripped-down, speeded-up Richard II, exposing the hilarity and hypocrisy of the play’s political machinating, a gesture that hits all too close to home in Brexit Britain.
Some disagree, though, opining that the native structure and sprawling themes of Shakespeare have been lost in a whirlwind of fashionable gimmick. Bizarrely, the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts is in the former category, and The Guardian’s Michael Billington in the latter – perhaps they swapped places for the evening.