Shakespeare had a tendency to play with history. Quite a lot of that mucking around was to reflect the Tudor thoughts on previous monarchs and regimes. So, when watching a Shakespearean historical drama, it’s always worth taking the story with a pinch of salt.
Luckily, that doesn’t detract from the play itself, especially as Will uses the kernel of truth, along with his fertile imagination to make his subjects far more interesting than they were in real life. A good example of this is Richard II which is being presented by We Are Animate, at the Jack Studio Theatre.
Richard (Michael Rivers) is a man who, at least in his own mind, was born to reign supreme. He expects his court to worship him and obey his every whim, and to that end surrounds himself with the equivalent of modern-day ‘yes’ men such as Sir John Bussy (Daniel Takefusa) and the Duke of Aumerle (Harriet Barrow). Richard likes nothing more than to be seen sitting majestically on his throne in full state as he is this day having been asked to arbitrate in a dispute between Thomas Mowbray (Daniel Ghezzi) and Richard’s cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (Fleur De Wit) heir to the Duke of Lancaster (Hilary Burns). Richard mishandles the situation and ends up having to exile the two – though in an unfair manner.
Later, in an attempt to prove his glory, Richard heads to war in Ireland, having misappropriated funds to pay for his sojourn, leaving his kingdom, and his queen (Nada Babikir) in the control of his Uncle, the Duke of York (Lizzy Dive).
I’ve always liked this play and have seen it a couple of times now. When I arrived, I had a concern about the running time, around 80 minutes, which suggested that there would be a lot cut out of the normal script. And there was, but somehow the production really kept the essence of the story, so if you hadn’t seen it before, you wouldn’t know anything was missing. I’m not sure who did the adaptation, but I take my hat off to them. Whilst I’m on the creative side, full points to Director Lewis Brown, Lighting Designer Jack Channer and Sound Designer Jordan Wilkes for creating a wonderfully atmospheric location for Richard’s tale. There were times, particularly in the opening scenes, where actors had their back to the audience – facing the king – but luckily their voices carried well. With the music, whilst the majority was very contemporary, I did think that the use of “Zadok the Priest” during the coronation scene was a mistake, and while I love the piece of music myself, it felt out of place to my mind.
Moving to the cast, I was really impressed with Michael Rivers’ portrayal of the king. At times a bully, then a spoiled little boy, even likeable occasionally, Rivers really portrayed every facet of Richard’s personality, even going further than the script. For example, there was more than a hint of gayness about the king, which really came across when you saw his relationship with Bussy. I was also very impressed that those actors playing multiple roles had different costumes to reflect the character they were portraying. It was also great to see gender not playing a part in casting, with the majority of traditional male roles being played by women. In fact, given the strength of Fleur De Wit’s performance, I would love to see Bolingbroke played by a woman again.
Richard II is often described as a subversive play, and I can really understand it. Parallels between Richard and the current political leadership are easy to draw, and it doesn’t take a massive leap of the imagination to compare the King with a recent POTUS or even our current PM. This production does not over-emphasise the contemporary nature of the story, letting the audience make their own links, and overall, it really is a first-rate production.
Whether you are new to the story or have memorised the entirety of John of Gaunt’s “sceptre’d isle” speech, you will definitely enjoy this version. Just don’t use the details in any history exam.
Review by Terry Eastham
Amidst worldwide political turbulence, England faces societal crisis and open rebellion. Living a life of luxury within the crumbling Palace of Westminster, King Richard is increasingly unwilling to face the calamity his failing government has created.
As the façade of power begins to dissolve around him, the dramatic downfall of an extraordinary individual begins; an individual who is in equal measures both vivaciously captivating, and excruciatingly cruel.
We Are Animate are proud to present this new version of one of Shakespeare’s most subversive plays. In our own age of unprecedented political turmoil, this production explores the power and strength of femininity, and questions what traits are expected, and respected, in a leader.
Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, 410 Brockley Road, London, SE4 2DH
Dates: Tuesday 22 February to Saturday 5 March at 7.30pm.