Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆
Simon Godwin’s Richard II takes place alongside Measure for Measure for the summer season at the Globe. They are suitably contrasting; the reluctant leader, Duke Vincentio and now, Charles Edward’s limelight-loving Richard II who thinks he’s born to be king.
Shakespeare’s 1595 history-tragedy, the first in the tetralogy and kickstarter to the Henriad is the story of deposition. The drama unfolds by way of Richard losing power he thinks is rightfully his to his cousin and eventual enemy, Bolingbroke. We’ve had several incarnations of Richard; self-pitying, self-obsessed, and Jesus-like martyrs. Edwards offers us a far less flamboyant picture of a leader who falls, not because he’s feeble, but because he’s simply not up to the job.
Post the recent elections, Richard evokes Ed Miliband, whose charisma — and not his intellectual qualities — likely caused his downfall. So, Edwards can poignantly exert might when he wants (such as his quietly but expertly timed command to stop his subjects duelling), but he lacks the calm aggression of David Sturzaker’s Bolingbroke, who exudes a natural mastery and confidence in decision making.
Instead, Richard is presented as the victim of his own supreme intelligence which tunnels inwards rather than proactively into action; it’s excruciating and fascinating to watch in Edwards’s intelligently sensitive portrayal. Not that we love this flawed character entirely. Swanning about in his white robes, he could be any trustafarian living off family property — the “landlord” of England as Gaunt says — which makes sense of Richard’s arrogant belief in his impunity as king.
The fairly understated performances from the main stars of this show works really well. But unfortunately, apart from (the brilliantly named) William Gaunt who plays a wise and cranky John of Gaunt, there are missed opportunities everywhere for the rest of the cast to bring out more of the drama. Queen Isabel should and could look seriously sick when she thinks her royal husband could die, but Anneika Rose very politely portrays her misgivings. Sasha Waddell’s Duchess of Gloucester reins in her attack against Gaunt, despite Shakespeare’s violent poetry in this scene — hacking branches that bleed blood could have called for more.
We did, however liked Paul Wills’s set design that supports and brings out the action. The crucifix-shaped stage surrounds and immerses groundlings; Richard holding the hand of a girl from the audience, for example, is a nice nod to his humanity but ultimate cluelessness in politics.
The drama and interest aren't sustained by the doomed Richard alone, although Edwards is fantastic in the role. A complex political drama on the page, that lacked spark this time for its transformation on stage. Rather like Miliband did earlier this year.