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Richard II review at House of Commons, London – ‘cleanly focused’

Hermione Gulliford and Tim Delap in Richard II ar House of Commons, London. Photo: Nick Rutter Hermione Gulliford and Tim Delap in Richard II ar House of Commons, London. Photo: Nick Rutter
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The once politically sensitive account of a king deposed and murdered, Richard II finds a new resonance played in contemporary dress, without stage lighting, in the imposing seat of modern democracy. This, the first play by Shakespeare to be presented in the House of Commons, was famously performed by his company as a curtain raiser to the Essex rebellion in 1601. Recent productions have concentrated less on the power play than on Richard’s journey from flamboyant, petulant, self-regarding monarch to a man divested of rank yet noble and philosophical in death.

In this updating, marking the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, the chivalric tournament between Hereford and Mowbray becomes a television debate, Bushy and Green are impugned in tabloid headlines and a besuited Richard bemoans his fate in an office. This approach favours the less introspective role of Bolingbroke, here played with forceful panache by Hermione Gulliford. In this context, a female contender for power makes perfect sense. Tim Delap has presence and the measure of Richard’s irony but, often on microphone and camera, not the agony of loss or self-discovery.

There is awkwardness in the parallel between medieval and modern: Richard is both divinely appointed monarch and party leader. A fall from power puts life not career in jeopardy and heads roll in more than metaphor.

Shorn of some of the best-loved scenes – the garden as reflection of the state and the comic rescue of Aumerle by his parents from a traitor’s death – and played by eight actors neatly swapping roles with their jackets, this is a cleanly focused but reduced account of the most ritualistic of the history plays.

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Moderately successful updating of Shakespeare's most stylised history play