Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Review Richard II

Richard II
by William Shakespeare

Through The Looking Glass

Order, order! Along to the Arcola Theatre cum House of Commons for this updating of Richard II for the Netflix, boxed set generation directed by Jack Gamble and Quentin Beroud.

It's a pared down version, structured around 24 hour BBC-style breaking news (video design: Sofi Berenger), shoehorned into a US-type political thriller format along the lines of the West Wing or House of Cards (US or UK).

After the death of a political heavyweight, King Richard (Tim Delap) is called on to arbitrate between his two cousins, Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk (David Acton), and Harriet Bolingbroke (Hermione Gulliford) - the latter a blonde female power player, all sharp suits and stilleto heels. Richard fails to grasp the threat posed by this family rift and leaves himself open to rebellion and a coup.

It's a pity the reimagining remains so reliant on pre-existing formats. For  looking more closely at the parliamentary set up, the bars, the debates and question times, the division bell and so on might have reaped benefits for the logic of the tale.

As it is, we have to accept a parallel universe where cousins like Cameron and Johnson (yes, they really are cousins!) do not simply jibe with words and where murder is not out of place.  Where (the closest to a death-in-office we could think of) the death of a party ;leader like John Smith is definitely not from natural causes.

The play starts promisingly with Shakespeare's own lines talking  of receipts echoing the expenses' crisis and disenchantment over a country "leased out", giving reasons why the nation might be ripe for change.

But it's the characters who are more credible than a shaky political drama format and this unbalances the play. Nevertheless, Hermione Gulliford is a striking tactical female Harri Bolingbroke.

Her ascent up the greasy pole gives the play its trajectory and allows also a tantalising glimpse of Richard's wife Isabel (Natasha Bain) as a politician trying to galvanise her born-into-the-role husband.

Yet the change of sex for Bolingbroke also sets up scenarios which feel, to us, like missed opportunities.

When Richard is dislodged by nefarious means, we were waiting for a glimpse of vulnerability from Harri. As a woman in a violent man's world, a politician who fears the situation has run away from her and the possibility striking her she might be being used and could be sacrificed.

But this never materialised and the transfer of power for Harri appears a seamless upward trajectory  regardless of gender.

Ignore the plot holes, concentrate on character,and you can appreciate the disciplined, careful performances, including those  of Tim Delap's Richard II and  Hayden Wood's Bagot, even if they feel sometimes out of context. 

This looking glass world is just a little too cracked and undetailed to hold our attention as a story. Still characters do have resonance, so in the end an amber light.

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