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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
RICHARD II
at Shakespeare's Globe

BATTLE FOR THE CROWN
By MICHAEL COVENEY

  Charles Edwards and David Sturzaker/ Ph: Johan Persson

Charles Edwards has been an admired actor for several years now, starring in The 39 Steps, The King’s Speech and Blithe Spirit (with Angela Lansbury) in the West End, and playing the love rat journalist who wins Lady Edith’s affection in Downton Abbey. Funnily enough, his Benedick in the Globe’s Much Ado opposite Eve Best was a bit too staid and grumpy in a show that was really all about Eve. But he’s stepped up several gears as Shakespeare’s dissolute monarch selling off land to fund his own lifestyle and the wars in Ireland.

In Simon Godwin’s well-paced and lucid production, Edwards presents the full arc of his monarchy, which goes from powerful self-assertion to a deep understanding of his divine right to the anointed throne even as he is challenged by the usurper, Bolingbroke (a strong, compelling performance, too, from David Sturzaker), and forced to enact his own abdication and shatter the glass of his own reflection. The Marlovian shape of the tragedy is enhanced not only by the fall and rise of his opponent, but by the interpolated prologue of his own coronation as a boy king. A golden shower of confetti serves as a dissolve to the opening line, “Old John of Gaunt, time-honoured Lancaster...”

This is the third outstanding recent interpretation of the role, following David Tennant’s for the Royal Shakespeare Company (returning to the Barbican in the New Year to complete the Henry IV/Henry V tetralogy) and Ben Whishaw’s for the BBC TV Hollow Crown series. As in the Whishaw version, the treacherous Aumerle (Graham Butler) turns king’s assassin in Pomfret Castle.

Because of the great poetry in the play, and the pronounced introspection in the king’s speeches, it’s often assumed that Richard is a mimsy, word-bandying weakling, a misconstruction that stems from John Gielgud’s association with Richard of Bordeaux in two plays (by Shakespeare and Gordon Daviot) and from David Warner’s legendary double of Richard and Henry VI in the great RSC Wars of the Roses chronicle in the 1960s.

But Edwards, no less than Tennant, makes of the prison speeches not a self-pitying escape route but a lesson in self-awareness. Preening at first, and idly toying with a proffered sample of material, his arrogance, tempered with a caustic wit and steeliness, demonstrates a spiritual isolation that only dissolves, ironically, when he’s fully incarcerated.

It always seems a weakness of the play that his French queen, Isabel (Anneika Rose), is so underwritten and “absent” from his concerns, but Edwards turns that to his own self-absorbed advantage, and the queen is demoted to a walk-on role in her own garden, where her pruning and trimming staff develop the most wonderful theatrical metaphor of a nation overgrown with weeds and dead heads.

There’s a cruciform floor in Paul Wills gilded design that works equally well for the opening medieval challenge and banishment scenes and for the symmetrical exchanges at Flint Castle, where Richard descends from the gallery “like glittering Phaeton.” The play often sags in the discovery of the Aumerle plot and the bickering of his parents, the Duke and Duchess of York (William Chubb and Sarah Woodward), but Godwin directs these scenes as borderline farce, which helps both character and action – and the comfort of the audience – without losing the plot.

Every critic has commended the wittily apposite casting of William Gaunt as his own namesake, John of Gaunt, who makes a play of words on gauntness anyway, a pun here redoubled in effect not only by the actor’s identity but, more importantly, by the sheer paradoxical power of Gaunt as Gaunt in his famous lament for this sceptre’d isle and its corrupt regal landlord. A really superb production.

 


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