Poor political leadership may be the predicament of our time, but as the play Richard II shows not just of our time. The flaws and errors of political life are perennial and on leadership Shakespeare's insights are so acute, it can certainly be considered a drama for today. But in Joe-Hill Gibbins's pared down, minimalist modern dress production restored under the title it first appeared in 1597 namely The Tragedy of King Richard the Second (Almeida Theatre), its usual force is lost.
The piece dramatizes two opposing ideas about where political authority comes from. Richard himself claims to derive political legitimacy from divine right. He is vain, petty and vacillating, indecisive, abrupt and arbitrary, prone to colossal blunders such as seizing Bolingbroke's land and inheritance. Yet he is cavalier about all this because, as the heir of divine calling, he disdains political pressure as the concern of ordinary mortals. The Duke of Bolingbroke, on the other hand, has a contrasting theory of political leadership, arguing that political skill and intellect matters more than bloodline.
This history play of regal misrule and usurpation is in Hill Gibbins's take patchy, truncated into 100 minutes and with just eight actors swapping genders and playing multiple roles, wearing what looks like clothing borrowed from scene shifters, means that characterisation is a blur. The only props are plastic buckets of blood, soil and water. Initially I felt I had wandered into a rehearsal for the play, rather than attending the actual fully-formed production.
ULTZ's riveted steel set locks the action into a strange sealed-off world, designed to convey the idea of isolation and isolationism.
The saving grace, however, is a commanding performance from Simon Russell Beale, a great Shakespearean actor, capably of exquisite vulnerability and ravenous passion, who is well suited to the role of Richard II, wearing a yellow paper crown and incarcerated inside a grey, metallic prison cell. Beale effortlessly holds your attention, even when relaxing with his hands near his hips, portly in his black T-shirt and trousers, or adopting the pose of a street pugilist, with jutting chin, eyes boggling and fists clenched, snarling in his adversaries' faces. Leo Bill captures Bolingbroke's slippery intelligence and Robin Weaver makes a conspiring and condescending Northumberland.
But there is no denying this is a production which lacks both clarity and insight and as a whole fails to impress.
The Tragedy of King Richard the Second
Runs until Saturday 2 February 2019 at Almeida Theatre.
Box office: 020 7359 4404.Last modified: April 6, 2021