The obvious way to stage a play like Richard II, about power grabs, backstabbing and loss of authority in the highest political echelons, would be to hang up a Union Jack and give Bolingbroke a floppy BoJo wig. Thank god then for Joe Hill-Gibbins and his determination to avoid the obvious.
His point isn’t just about the shitshow of contemporary politics; by slightly abstracting the play, and locking the action into a white-walled steel prison cell, Hill-Gibbins throws a chuckle at the shitshow politics has always been.
Although the production crystallises the farce of politicking with visual trickery and lots of mess, the laughs are actually few. It’s not predictable at any moment whether a scene is going to be played as comedy or tragedy. More than the slapstick of it, the production is also about the perennial, long-proven emptiness of power grabs, and that’s a sad and sorry business.
Richard and Bolingbroke, and all the people around them, are just self-confident idiots pretending to be rulers, pretending to be powerful, even pretending – and failing – to be adults.
Take Leo Bill’s Bolingbroke: at the beginning a bit whiny, he tries to be a man by duelling Mowbray, before trying to be a king.
It’s all about performance, as encapsulated by the lines “As in a theatre, the eyes of men, / After a well-graced actor leaves the stage, / Are idly bent on him that enters next.”
Both Bill and Simon Russell Beale do this incredibly well. Bill finds himself in power and surrounded by murderous morons, who go around killing people they think the new king doesn’t like. 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.
Beale’s Richard also wears a series of masks. He nails the serious stuff just as much as the silly. When he’s been “unkinged” he looks lost and pathetic: caked in mud and staggering, and uncertain whether anger or panic or self pity should take over.
Ultz’s riveted steel cell of a set locks all this action into a weird closed-off world. The idea of isolation and isolationism is again obviously Brexity – “That England, that was wont to conquer others, / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself” – but again that’s only in the background. It’s more, here, about the space where power is played out: always removed from reality, always in a bubble.
Swingeing cuts have been made to the text and the verse is vomited out at breakneck speed. The ensemble – possibly in Richard’s head as he rots in the Tower of London – move in a stylised manner. They stand tightly packed together and then shove one of their number forward to reluctantly play a part. Blood and soil also feature prominently.
Together this all makes for a production that’s swift, strange and pretty brilliant.