As all thoughts turn to elections, whether they be general, mayoral or police commissioner, and the nation marks the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, there couldn’t be a better time to revisit the playwright’s histories, especially Richard II.
Power, politics, vanity and greed drive every line of this drama but start fiddling around with its structure and the wheels are likely to come off.
Dippermouth and Hartshorn-Hook Productions were incredibly fortunate to be able to stage a single performance of its updated Richard II in the bosom of British politics, the House of Commons, to a specially invited audience.
Jack Gamble and Quentin Beroud’s version has now moved to East London’s Arcola Theatre (until Saturday night) and, while it has a lot going for it, it fails to fully engage with its audience.
It starts well enough, with the pomp and ceremony of the parliamentarian trumpeters majestically heralding that the Duke of Gloucester has died and Richard has assumed the Hollow Crown. We know this because there are BBC bulletins throughout the production giving us news soundbites.
In this instance we are at the seat of power, and that doesn’t sit with royalty but with the Prime Minister. Imagine then that Richard II is, perhaps, a David Cameron (although, possibly, more a Tony Blair) and it is the government and not the throne he has taken.
And when two noblemen (MPs) clash they are ordered to the dispatch boxes to thrash out their differences in a public debate.
You get the picture. It could work – up to a point. But Tim Delap’s drab, Conservative-suited, Richard is in sharp contrast to the peacock prince of Shakespeare’s tale. There’s very little vanity or petulance, little of a leader who believes totally that he is empowered by god himself to rule.
Here is a rather bland and colourless Richard who isn’t duplicitous enough, not wily enough and not charismatic enough to play god on earth or a leader of men.
His adversary here has changed sex to become Harri Bolingbroke and every time I looked at Hermione Gulliford’s power-suited, stiletto-heeled, strident Harri I couldn’t help but think of Home Secretary Theresa May.
But making Harry into Harri really doesn’t work unless we put aside the original story and history. Fourteenth century women were unable to inherit anything, titles, land or otherwise and, in fact, if her father had died without a male heir then his estate would have gone to the Crown (Richard).
Instead we have a mightily pissed off Bolingbroke who, while exiled by Richard, sees the leader steal her wealth, land and titles, to fund his ill-fated and poorly conceived conflict in Ireland.
While supporting his troops Bolingbroke marches back to England, musters the other Dukes (MPs) and forces an election. When it’s clear that she will have a landslide victory, the beleaguered Richard capitulates.
Yes, it is easy to apply Richard II to modern day politics, but not at the expense of the original poetry of the verse, which is delivered by an ensemble of eight who play 16 characters, swapping one dull grey jacket for another to change character. It can get confusing.
I rather enjoyed David Acton’s turns as the fence-sitting Duke of York and as the traitorously accused Duke of Norfolk. The former saw him lose an arm and the latter his self-respect. York does his best as a deputy PM but he too bows down to the usurper Bolingbroke.
Natasha Bain makes a formidable wife to Richard but is more menacing as Bolingboke’s terrier, the Duke of Northumberland.
The Arcola doesn’t have much space for a stage so Emily Harwood’s set is sparse save a table, a few chairs and a pointless clock whose loud tick throughout infuriates the hell out of audience members suffering from hyperacusis.
Harwood makes use of every available space with the cast utilising corners in the seating area to film goblets to camera for the news and to gather conspiratorily.
Being a modern version the bastard press are always on hand to get a quick quote for the news and the characters are served by tablets and mobile phones – which destroys some of the play’s narrative when Richard goes missing in Ireland and no-one knows where he is. I’m pretty sure an app, call or text would have tracked him in seconds.
This is a very accessible Richard II but not an outstanding one.
Jack Gamble and Quentin Beroud’s updated version of Shakespeare’s power play, Richard II, at the Arcola Theatre, is accessible and relevant but not outstanding.