Richard II gives up power – though it’s not his choice. His cousin Henry Bolingbroke has returned from exile, led a rebellion, become king of the castle. Richard’s toppled monarch is now a dirty rascal. Shakespeare stages this concretely – a crown passed from one to another. The supposed divinity of majesty proves portable as a party hat. Richard, as often, reaches for an arresting metaphor: here, two buckets on a well. Bolingbroke is currently buoyant with success; his rival sinks in grief.
Crown and buckets are virtually the only props in Joe Hill-Gibbons’ vigorous, rigorous and radically reduced staging at the Almeida, designed by Ultz with Charlotte Espiner. The crown is a spiky bronzed circle. The buckets (labelled for added utility) hold blood, soil and water, to be thrown with derisive force. The play of power is simplified to this icon of monarchy and the crudest containers. The Tragedy of King Richard the Second: the symbol and the slop.
Some items in this propwatch series are quietly naturalistic. Only as you watch do they assume a wider meaning, a prism through which to see a production. Not the crown and buckets, which have immediately iconic force. They shine and spoil and suggest the unreliable career in power.
The production begins with Simon Russell Beale hushed and roguish Richard speaking some of the deposed king’s final lines: ‘I have been studying how I may compare/ This prison where I live unto the world.’ In its beginning is its end, and we’re cued into a cyclical pattern – rebellion, response and raging paranoia will be the keynotes of power. It also signals the bold distillation of this staging – the usual mighty cast (22 in the last RSC production) is here just eight; the three hours of that RSC revival scrunched to 100 minutes. It goes fast – no one has to wait for trumpets to pipe down or for the attendant lords to stop shuffling before they speak. No pageantry, the minimum of props;as in Richard’s bare cell, this confined space stands for everything – absolutely every onstage element must be compact with meaning.
Hill-Gibbins has form with messing up classics. The Changeling descended into a terrifying food fight – you’ve never seen a scarier use of trifle. A Midsummer Night’s Dream sat on an earthy floor – no one passed through the night unsoiled. These choices have metaphoric pizzazz, but also liberate the actors’ movement, informing the way they run, slip and grapple. In Richard II,the schoolroom simplicity of the props is accompanied by a playground approach to politics. Everyone is onstage throughout – the chorus of courtiers hugs the riveted wall (no doors; no escape), clusters in corners, slinks round the gunmetal grey perimeter to avoid detection or tattletale conspiracy. At various moments everyone rucks together, shouting and flailing like tantrum-prone tots:when this happens around Bolingbroke, you see an exasperated Leo Bill wonder why he struggled for power. Is this the glittering prize? A crown and a heap full of headache?
On the poster, the crown is a yellow paper creation with towering points, raggedly cut. It’s very primary school. Aww, Richard isn’t good with scissors but at least he had a go. Some of that childlike vibe remains in the production’s actual eight-pronged crown. Previous Richards have sported jewels and elaborate fluting (Ben Whishaw, Charles Edwards) or looked lost in avast crown (Fiona Shaw), but the stark Almeida crown is pure symbol. It’s power with pointy bits.
Holinshed’s chronicle, Shakespeare’s source for his history, describes Richard abdicating by placing his signet ring onto Bolingbroke’s finger. Changing that to a crown amplifies the gesture, charges the unwilling transfer of power with drama. ‘Here cousin,’ Richard says with provoking politeness, ‘seize the crown.’ Seize is brilliant. There’s no way Bolingbroke can respond without seeming childish – seize says you want this too much, seize says you can have it but you don’t deserve it. Russell Beale and Bill’s truculent usurper both hold on tight and refuse to let go, a tug of want which dignity abandoned long ago.
As for the buckets: there’s no dignity there. They might be prompted by the deathbed reproaches of John of Gaunt (Joseph Mydell),Richard’s uncle and Bolingbroke’s father, who references the earthy ground of the kingdom, the blood that Richard has drained from his family, the seas that lash this sceptred isle. Or, less portentously, from the refuse pails tipped over Richard’s head as he’s processed through London in disgrace. Two buckets each of soil and blood; several more of water. Bill enacts the play’s first killings– of two royal aides – by hurling a blood bucket over them. Later, Russell Beale is heaped with dirt, then sluiced with water. Muck in his beard, drips down his t-shirt: he’s a sorry sight. Stark instruments of authority – is this the best a pre-democratic state can do, gunk someone? – they’re oddly forbidding. We know a stage gun won’t kill anyone, but stage water will drench you. The buckets feel more real than the crown. The anxieties of power more real than the prizes.
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