The Tragedy of King Richard the Second – Review

Simon Russell Beale & Leo Bill in The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. Images Marc Brenner.

Borrowing a technique from American long-form TV drama, The Tragedy of King Richard The Second which opened this week at London’s Almedia Theatre, begins in medias res

The wonderful Simon Russell Beale steps forward, ashen faced, to deliver the “I have been studying how I may compare / This prison where I live unto the world” speech from Act 5.

Thus giving a strong indication of the tone of the production with a rejigged structure, scenes merged in places, and the slashing of the text to come in under a zippy 100 minutes. 

The narrative, with its themes of flawed leadership, whispering conspiracy from across the English Channel and a nagging Irish problem, could almost be a metaphor for the present Brexit turmoil. 

The problem I have with this production is it seems to be labouring under the weight of directorial concept, with director Joe Hill-Gibbins gazing longingly at the European avant-garde. 

Staged in Ultz’s doorless industrial sheen design, with snap-to-spotlight effects, accompanied by techno audio effects and a ticking clock – I too often felt that I was trapped in a theatrical microwave oven. 

The sight of several buckets containing varying liquids and substances – gives one the Checkhovian gun effect. We just know people are going to get wet – or worse.

Yet the sheer stamina of the fine ensemble – onstage for the duration – has to be admired. 

Actors hug the walls, huddle in groups, occasionally push a protesting performer downstage on cue, dart around in groups as if ordered by a PE master, and at one point erupt into a full scale playground style brawl. 

Excellent support comes from Leo Bill’s turgid Bolingbroke and Saskia Reeves as Mowbray/Bushy/Duchess of York.

And then there is Simon Russell Beale’s Richard. Probably this generation’s finest interpreter of Shakespeare, Russell Beale delivers a masterclass of wit, pathos and unspoken nuance – absolutely dazzling. 

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second runs at the Almeida Theatre until February 2 and will be broadcast live to cinemas, in the UK and internationally, in partnership with National Theatre Live, January 15.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second
  • The Tragedy of King Richard the Second


Simon Russell Beale delivers a masterclass of wit, pathos and unspoken nuance. Absolutely dazzling. 

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