More than any other of Shakespeare’s plays Richard II carries the legacy of one of its greatest interpreters – John Gielgud. Not one of the plays that had been emphasised by Henry Irving in his seasons at the Lyceum, Richard II became one of the most frequently revived in the Shakespeare canon only in wake of Richard of Bourdeaux in the 1930s.

It was this production that established the tradition of playing Richard as too fastidious for rulership, too self-consciously poetic and self-dramatising for the prose rituals and drudgery of kingship. Too much of a sexual and practical dilettante to pass muster. There are elements of this line of descent still present in the notable recent portrayals by Tennant and Wishaw.

So it is all to credit of Jack Gamble and Quentin Beroud that their new performing version seeks to stand aside from the inevitability of the tragically over-sensitive Richard. Instead, they try to take the play’s politics absolutely seriously, and focus on the rivalries of the nobility and Richard’s mishandling of them.

They do so by updating the play to the milieu of a modern pre-election campaign where House of Cards provides the governing ethos and assumed set of motivations among the players. Moreover, this is a media-driven world where screens project certain scenes as real-time pieces to camera, and all the leading characters are highly self-conscious about the public resonance and symbolism of their words and actions.

imageFor the greater part this approach yields real dividends. This is after all a play where crafted rhetoric and presentational artifice are at the heart of the matter. It is one of the few plays wholly written in verse, and where both public statements and private monologues are composed with a self-conscious eye on both the actual audience and the audience within the play.

To set it afresh in an age of media self-consciousness is a good fit with these aspects, not least for the way it makes sense of Richard’s own preening awareness and cultivation of his own image, whether in ascendency or defeat, and Bolingbroke’s need to usurp control of the media as a key stage in usurping the throne.

Most of the text has been retained and what is omitted goes unmissed. A few minor courtier parts are reworked into roles for journalists and that is a good fit – the rituals of the court and the press corps having much in common in fact. Only in the presentation of speeches to camera is there a jarring note.

What works well as large-scale acting on stage comes over as absurdly exaggerated on camera. It should be possible to for the actors to make the necessary adjustments, not least because they are all experienced in both media.

imageThematically there are losses on two counts, and theatre-goers will react differently as to how important these issues are. Firstly, the religious aspect of sovereignty – that ‘divinity that doth hedge a king’ – is like everything else reduced to a matter of image and propaganda here – useful instrumentally to those who possess it, but not otherwise a restraint on action or source of motivation. That is a modern view and not Shakespeare’s (or for that matter Elizabeth I’s who quickly identified with Richard when the play was ill-advisedly revived on the eve of Essex’s Revolt!). Also a political reading can underplay the pathos and human dimensions of the final scenes unless they are handled very carefully. There was some point, after all, to that original Gielgud reading, which placed the focus squarely on the verbal pathos and then actual defiance of Westminster Hall and, finally, Berkeley Castle.

There are some very fine performances among the cast for this production. As Richard, Tim Delap offers a fine simulacrum of authority but you feel the cracks in it right from the start, not least in his concern for media appearances.

His relationship with his queen, Isabel, is well worked through, and it is good to see that elevated above his contacts with courtiers and hangers-on. More could be done with the magnificent hieratic verse of the final scenes, but he is fully attuned to the multi-layered play-acting of his deposition where he both observes and participates in his own downfall under the spotlight.

imageThere is a gender change for Bolingbroke, who becomes Harri here. There was nothing much wrong with the performance of Hermione Gulliford, but it is hard to see what is gained by the gender switch, unless very specific parallels with modern political dramas are intended. Gulliford captures Bolingbroke’s pride in noble ancestry and carefully calibrated withdrawal of loyalty to the crown as his rebellion succeeds. Towards the very end she also expressed in a way many do not the reservations and costs she already perceives in governance won on such dubious terms – another important political lesson of this play that is then taken further in Henry IV.

The parts are divided between eight players, so that several take on up to three roles. Among these Natasha Bain and David Acton stand out. Bain produces two highly contrasted performances as Queen Isabel and Northumberland. These roles do not often make much impression in the theatre, but Bain lent a dignity and hauteur to the queen that made you see why Richard valued her, and as Northumberland she captured the ornery intractability of the aristocratic opposition Richard faces.

I had never thought of the Duke of York as a major role, but Acton made us all think of this part anew. In a way he is the conscience of the contemporary audience – aware of Richard’s manifest faults but unwilling to follow this through to outright defiance. He portrayed the dilemma eloquently even though the greater poetic set-pieces go his brother John of Gaunt, here delivered with sickly eloquence by Roland Oliver.

imageThe Arcola can be an awkward space for an audience which often has to follow action on multiple levels that stray from the central performing space. No such problems with sightlines here. The action was firmly anchored around some handsome period furniture which located it firmly in the parliamentary realm. There were even two chairs which had formerly done service at Westminster.

Scenes of council and judgement worked well, and the set-pieces such as the opening stand-off between Mowbray and Bolingbroke and the culminating deposition scene, lost nothing by such minimalism. Modern sharp suits and thin ties and shoulder pads were complemented by a single circlet of gold for a crown – and that was symbolically enough.

Shamefully no MP turned up when this production first aired in a committee room of the House of Commons. This was very much their loss as the audience at the Arcola clearly found a lot to think about in this novel approach, which other directors could engage with fruitfully too.

Richard II
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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…