Arcola Theatre Richard II


My partner and I were not lucky enough to win the lottery to see this production of Richard II on the evening it was presented in Parliament. At the time I had no real feelings about that, but now that I’ve seen this production and how it works, I’m rather more sensible of having missed out. This Richard II is staged as a modern leadership struggle within the governing Tory party (and I now bet the positioning of it in parliament was probably resonant af, rather than gimmicky).

The choice does a lot for me, but it also presents the production with some challenges. It both does and doesn’t make sense that the characters refer only infrequently to policies, beliefs and the electorate. The script doesn’t really allow them to, given its period and concerns. Yet in a way, are politicians of any stripe, at this level and working through these sorts of in-house issues, thinking and talking about politics in the way people outside the system do? I also feel the frequent references to religiosity and divine right are here standing, in a loose and undetermined kind of way, for other discourses of duty and responsibility. I’m actually at ease with that floating signification, though I could see it bothering people who want to read that religiosity literately and feel it at odds with the setting. And there are a couple points where the juxtaposition of theme and play text doesn’t jive: Richard’s arrest seems a bit OTT, and his murder hardly explicable in this specific context, for example. But there’s not a lot the company can do about that, and I think the benefits of this staging choice outweigh the cons.

I like the forceful way they go about establishing this reading. Their costuming choices enforce quite effective doubling, which is no mean feat—this is a hard play to pull off with so small a company. The stripped-down Whitehall-ish set with light office props (Banished Mowbray must turn in his office blackberry!!) is so civil service it hurts. I recognize those entry-card lanyards from my bedside table (my partner’s an uncivil servant), but in addition to lending the costuming a degree of authenticity, the cards’ blue cords also pick up the colour from blue ties and blue jackets. The visual tricks used to make politicians look powerful on camera are deployed to good effect here, as is a theatrical aesthetic vocabulary. Shared blue bounces the eye from one figure to the next, conveying a kind of unity, which (I believe, based off having seen this once) is stripped down until only Richard’s blue tie stands, a thin blue line—before it too is stripped from him. (For other Americans et al: tie colour can signify one’s party allegiance in UK politics, and that’s what I’m basing my ‘Tories’ reading off of.) The flashes to a BBC news screen, used to do part of the story-telling, allow for characters’ reactions to the news items and slightly different blockings of scenes. People can know different things than they knew in the playscript, and monologues can become a kind of one-sided dialogue, in a way that is and is not like their original discursive function.

Many of these choices, like the multimedia turn, are effective where they might have been hokey. Rare, for example, is the Fringe production multimedia element that doesn’t look ass—not every show is “The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer”. Though there is, and I say this non-pejoratively, a slightly Fringey feel to the venue and production—in part I think because it had that kind of energy. Which, if you know the play, you’ll probably find as remarkable as I did.

This play’s been cut fairly dramatically, which in part accounts for and gives it that sensation of pace. I have to admit, Richard II is not a favourite of mine. Nor is it, barring faddish phases of affected affection, a critical darling. What it has to offer is a bunch of very good lines, some moments of fairly poignant poetry. And a lot of this production’s cuts do savage the play’s poetry: it’s not a great Richard II in that respect.

BUT it is also… possibly my favourite Richard II, of the four (others: Whishaw—Hollow Crown recording, Tennant—Barbican, Edwards—Globe) I’ve seen? Essentially, I think I could really enjoy reading the luscious bits of Richard II, but that this staging did startling things with this play that made it work for me in ways I’d never seen it work before or thought it could work. In short, that made it work for me as a play. Yes, you sacrificed a lot of choice stuff for these cuts (a lot of it with female characters, though the cross-casting redressed this sacrifice), but you gained a sense of drive and tension, and tightened key emotional arcs in a way that made them powerful, comprehensible and easy to enter into and empathize with. I’ve never thought of this play as something that could be good political drama before, with the virtues of a Party Animals or House of Cards affair. (I feel like that isn’t exactly the context I want here, but I’m struggling to think of better reference points—in a way this also feels almost like the Macbeth!Richard II, in terms of its sustained power and tight arc.)

This is a staging powered by a hubristic and miscalculating Richard (Tim Delap), rather than an ‘eloquent but idiotic in his decisions’ and fey Richard. In contrast to Whishaw and Tennant’s ethereal takes, this is a fairly material portrayal.

I’ve never been that comfortable with the common choice to make Bolingbroke’s line about Bushy and Green seducing Richard away from the Queen the underpinning of a Queer Richard characterisation. In practice, I think this Queer Richard characterisation expands to commingle with the idea of a Richard who is too weak and feminine to rule. To me, it seems easy for work that wants to explore Shakespearean queerness via this aperture to lapse into lazily reiterating stereotypical beliefs about queer masculinity that I don’t think the productions even consciously hold. Perhaps that’s a limited and unfair reading on my part of what this common choice is trying to do or even succeeding in doing, but I do feel there’s something underworked in Fey Richard as I have known him: that it doesn’t quite cohere as a reading, and that out of that confusion, you get—something potentially ugly and lazy and unproductive.

I know this take might be drawn from History as well as just a reading of this play text, but lbr, Shakespeare has ever but slenderly given a shit about things like timelines, let alone Historical Dickings Not Convenient For My Vision. I also feel it leaves that good scene with the Queen and Richard hanging somewhat, and slightly betrays the authentic emotional intensity of that. Not to say that Richard can’t have a meaningful relationship with his Queen and schtupp a page, but that’s a more complex emotional development than we quite have room for/than the play gives us.

In stepping away from the (I think) mirage-oasis of foregrounding a reading of Richard as Ineffectual Queer, this production can say more about power, and can say it more clearly. Richard’s fall (and the hovering inevitability of further wars of succession) can do and mean more because Richard was relatively compelling and with it in person in ways I believe even a politician whose ideas I find fucking repellent would have to be, at that level. The infighting theme’s also provocative in this regard, because it frames this whole contest as occurring between people I hate and wish dead. As they do me, I am sure! Thus the fact that, via the magic of acting (particularly Richard’s), I entered into their concerns and felt their personhood is I suppose the mark of a job well done. (I do wonder about the surprising degree of ethnic diversity in this version of the party, but.)

Bolingbroke is a woman here (as is one of the Flatterers). This, coupled with how good her actress is, makes Bolingbroke especially rich this go ’round. Due to Shakespeare textually hedging his bets and having to make everyone look good because their grandkids were his patrons, Bolingbroke is stuck with an Unclear Motive and Unclear Degree of Culpability, in a way that even deciding to play him a certain way can’t fully smooth over. Here, though, I feel for her sense of dispossession, her thwarted rights within the party, her struggle to hold it together in the wake of her ascension, and her potential guilt and regret over what she’s done to Richard. I feel for them differently than I have done when watching a male Bolingbroke, because the context of being a woman in her position is different. Though let me stress that her choices as a performer rather than her gender qua gender have made this repositioning work—it’s definitely a question of skill. I do feel perhaps Bolingbroke is the leader the Tories need. Even if, as a Tory, she is entirely superfluous to the needs of the nation.

I really liked this actress (Hermione Gulliford), the actress for the Queen (among a few other parts—again, small cast, much doubling) (Natasha Bain), and the many-rolled Eleanor Cox. The whole cast was good, but I was especially compelled by Bolingbroke, the Queen/Northumberland and Richard’s nuanced, multilayered performances.

This production benefited from a clear and thought-through take, and I found this a strong reading. It’s not the only Richard II I want to exist, but I for sure want it as a part of the landscape of potential interpretations and am happy to have gone. It’s a provocative play that makes me consider other quite focused, themed re-stagings and what they might accomplish. I’d definitely seek out projects from this company again (or look up the actors I thought particularly good in future).

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