This year is one in which I’m pretty much seeing no Shakespeare at all. I blame burnout – last year I saw, what, seven versions of three plays? – but also a rebellion on my side: I’m tired of theaters making lazy programming decisions because they want secure audiences (as I’m convinced it’s not the lack of copyright that’s the motivating factor). Seriously, the Michael Grandage season featured two Shakespeares out of the five plays they did, wasting what could have been an incredible opportunity to expose people to new work. So this year my new year’s resolution was to see no plays I’ve seen before, a vow I took mostly because I was burnt out on Shakespeare hashed and rehashed and hashed again. It’s saved me from Malfi but perhaps led to a mistake in View from the Bridge … and yet, there I was Friday night in Shoreditch getting ready for Richard II. What gives?
In this case, it’s partly living up to my “duties” as a reviewer, but it’s also a desire to see a project through. See, the Malachites are doing all 19 of Shakespeare’s Bishopsgate plays to Shoreditch, and I want to see the project through. But also, I was so impressed by their Titus that I’ve wanted to continue supporting the company by reviewing their shows (as long as you understand this is a bit of a risk for both of us, because I’m not going to hide the bad news if that’s what I have to give – my contract with you, my imaginary reader, holds true, that I will give you an honest take on whatever I see).
So: I last saw Richard II at the Donmar, where I came up with some distinct impressions of the script: Richard, a king who is obsessed with his God-given right to kingship; the extraordinarily melancholy garden scene with Queen Isabella listening to a painful metaphor delivered by a wise servant; and the extraordinary speech Richard gives while he hands his crown (and his ability to direct his life) to Henry IV.
For this Richard, the Malachites presented us with Nick Finegan, who, with his strawberry blond hair, pale skin, and sense of utter composure seemed every bit the man who believed in his own divine right to rule. There was no sense of his needing to get assent from the commons or even the nobles; he was above and beyond all of this earthly nonsense. Interestingly enough, Finegan’s interpretation was less otherworldly than Eddie Redmayne; he also seemed more, er, heterosexual (although it is a bit difficult to imagine Richard bothering with this kind of proletariat stuff I thought it was very odd how effeminately he was played at the Donmar).
In vivid contrast to him is Martin Prest as Henry Bolingbroke, who is incredibly dynamic and charismatic as the wronged king-to-be. I couldn’t help but contrast his performance with that of the watery Jude Law as Henry V (one of the shows that burnt me out on Shakespeare for the year). Instead of watching a name actor swagger lazily through one of the best written roles in English-language theater, we got a man fighting to be vibrant, likeable and believable … and succeeding. Bolingbroke is a man who still respects the monarchy yet also wants to fight for justice (admittedly in this case for himself). I couldn’t help but get swept up in Bolingbroke’s cause: he seemed like a natural leader and the description of the commons fawning before him as he paraded through the streets of London seemed all too believable. Prest has the crown coming to him from the moment he challenges Thomas Mowbray to a duel; Richard’s voyage to Ireland to lead the army seems, by contrast, a little boy going on a school holiday. Both of them are noble, yet both of them portray opposites of the spectrum of what it means to be a king. Watching their war of words (and silence) as Richard struggles to hand over the crown to his successor is simply electrifying. (And let’s not forget watching Richard “negotiate” while hiding in the organ loft: wearing a not very scary helmet, he looked like a child playing at soldiers, yet also an adult realizing that he has, in every way, lost.)
Even if he seems out of touch, Richard’s end is heartbreaking. Trapped in the Tower, in the dark (the church was lit only with candles for an amazing effect in this scene), naked but for a cloth around his hips, Richard can only be pitied. He understands all he has lost, and it seems that even his hold on his mind has been loosened; he fears death at every step. Finegan seemed just insane enough to kill by accident, while sane enough to fully understand how tragic his fall is; this effect is emphasized by the thick shadows, which has him looking like a Caravaggio Christ. At the end, when his broken body is brought to the king, it’s hard not to feel crushed by sadness; who would think that Richard II could be so fragile?
While I once again had troubles with the acoustics in this building, the strong performances, charismatic leads, and inventive staging made it a Richard to remember. It’s certainly more than worth the £12 ticket cost – and just 50 pence more buys a cup of tea at the interval! Life in the Cheap Seats very much approves.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, July 4th, 2014. I saw origins of American attitudes towards rule of law – the attitudes that led us to our revolution – in this play. Most fitting! It continues thorugh July 26th.)