Review - The Tragedy of King Richard The Second at the Almeida Theatre
Shakespearean make-overs have been all the rage in the London theatre this year, including othellomacbeth, which merged those two great tragedies into one play at Lyric Hammersmith, and Measure for Measure, which replayed the story twice over, offering alternative narrative lines in which one half was played set in Jacobean England with Angelo corrupting a nun, and then a second half set in the present day with the woman becoming the predatory villain over a man.
Now the Almeida - a theatre that prides itself on revisionist versions of well-known plays, including a modern, surveillance society Hamlet that transferred to the West End and most recently Ibsen's The Wild Duck - offers a dark, stark and sometimes startling contemporary take on Richard II, Shakespeare's vivid drama of power politics revolving around the pressures of kinship.
Under the controlling hand of director Joe Hill-Gibbins best known for his bold classical make-overs at the Young Vic, it feels equal parts like an experimental student production and a Steven Berkoff show: highly stylised and frequently physical, as well as full of alternately raw and heightened theatrical gestures. Buckets clearly labelled with their contents - water, blood and soil - are on display in the metal-walled box of Ultz's set; their contents will variously be thrown or poured over the actors, most notably Simon Russell Beale in the title role, who gamely allows himself to be drenched in all three.
He wears a cardboard gold crown, the only note of colour above his black tee-shirt and dark jeans. But the variety and texture, as ever, comes from the brooding introspection of his delivery. He has a confiding, melancholic intensity as he shares the inevitability of his downfall here, at the hands of the usurping Bolingbroke of Leo Bill.
The text is heavily truncated to run for only 100 minutes, played by just eight actors in all. This doesn't exactly deliver the play as we know it or as the uninitiated might understand it, but it has a fresh urgency.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner