All in the mind

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world.

King Richard II

This prison is sharply defined on stage at the Almeda Theatre where Simon Russell Beale remembers the events which lead him to incarceration, and predicts events which wil lead to his death. The four grey walls which surround him may just be the prison cell, but they also seem like a metaphor for his own brain, his mind in turmoil recalling snatches of conversation, and unconnected episodes which make up his story.

Richard II is an episodic play. Discrete chapters of history; characters introduced and removed without adding much, anything, to the narrative; and major swings in plot-line without any back-story or build up. This new performance, directed by Joe Hill-Gibbons, builds on that episodic nature and everything that is needed to tell the story, for Richard to remember the story, is on stage throughout. Eight cast playing a dozen or so parts, buckets (literally) of blood and earth, and a single prop – the hollow crown. As Simon Russell Beale calls to mind or imagines a conversation, those characters detach from the group of players huddled at the sidelines waiting like substitutes for the manager’s instructions.

And as the vast sweep of the story unfolds in Richard’s mind, little groups of characters emerge, change, flow across the stage mingling with others as alliances are built and destroyed. As traitors to one cause become protagonists for another.

If you know the play, it may be marginally easier to follow which character is betraying who and why. But that is not necessary and it is not how this play reads. Instead, we have a central character, the King, remembering and imagining a series of events. It almost doesn’t matter how that narrative is constructed. Think of how you remember a significant period of your own life. Highlights come and go; people come and go; different friends and family have slightly different roles each time you remember.

But because we are seeing the story through the eyes of the defeated King there is one significant change to other productions of Richard II that I have seen. Bolingbroke, about to become Henry IV, is portrayed as a weak and hesitant man. A puppet controlled and instructed by the puppet master, Northumberland, who Richard clearly blames for his fall. And, of course, Richard is the victim here and not (as ‘1066 and all that’ would have it) a bad King.

This is a completely new and thought-provoking production with Simon Russell Beale giving another consummate performance as the embattled and then doomed King. Whether you come it with a knowledge of the play traditionally directed, or with no pre-knowledge, this is a thoroughly entertaining and different view of the ebb and flow of English History.

★★★★☆