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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
RICHARD II
at Donmar Warehouse

HEAVY LIES THE CROWN
By DAVID BENEDICT

  Andrew Buchan, Eddie Redmayne and Ben Turner/ Ph: Johan Persson

Faced with another Shakespeare revival – London is rarely short of them – audiences have every right to ask, why this play, and why now? In the case of Richard II at the Donmar, the answer to those questions appears to be one of timing. It is, after all, a play about handing over responsibility, which is exactly what director Michael Grandage is doing after a decade at the organisation’s helm. Yet the distilled power of his taut production in tandem with Eddie Redmayne’s febrile central performance, allows audiences to see much more in the play than footling topicality.
 
As with all of Grandage’s work, design is central to the drama. As the audience arrives, it's hit with an intense aroma of incense and the distant pealing of bells. David Plater’s blazing light makes Richard Kent’s set of a castellated wall of gilded Gothic arches gleam with majesty. This is no mere backdrop. It’s the physicalisation of the play’s principal metaphor: the power of kingship.
 
At the center of that opening image sits Richard, head bowed, enthroned in silent contemplation. Just as with Cate Blanchett in the opening shots of the Tudor biopic Elizabeth, the scene establishes unassailable royal authority, so crucial in a play that charts the downfall of one who ruthlessly upholds the era’s defining belief in the doctrine of the divine right of kings.
 
The establishment of that status frees Redmayne to play with it. His Richard is as lofty as the role demands, but he’s also self-obsessed, brittle and petulant. His costume, modern fabrics in medieval cut, emphasizes his height and slim build, and Redmayne creates an almost giddy contrast between his light, high-handed physical presence and his increasingly anguished demeanour as the usurper Bolingbroke out-manoeuvres him.
 
One of the strongest elements in the latter’s armoury is Andrew Buchan’s refusal to go down the obvious route. Bolingbroke is a man who, in order to right his sense of injustice and ascend the throne, has to persuade the most powerful men of the 14th century that almost everything they have known about kingship is wrong. For his manipulation to be effective, therefore, he cannot appear to be a scheming plotter, so Buchan plays him as a notably clean-edged man of the people.
 
That’s evident not only in his open physicality, far removed from Redmayne’s self-tortured twisting, but in his unaffected delivery. Clarity of speech, in fact, is the entire production's hallmark; the focus is not on the poetry but on intent.
 
The clearest case of that is Michael Hadley as elder statesman John of Gaunt. He has the play’s most famous speech, a hymn to traditional values in an England described as a “precious stone set in a silver sea.” But Hadley rejects the expected deathbed oration, not least because there’s no bed or, indeed, any furniture except the throne used throughout. Instead, he uses the character’s horror as a motor for rage at what Richard is doing to his beloved country. This energises both the scene and the audience’s understanding and acceptance of the revolutionary ideas formulating in Bolingbroke's mind.
 
This also stops the play drowning in argumentative self-reflection – the play's accent on politicking can seem more austere than most. The unusually fast running time (just over two and a half hours for a virtually uncut text) is an indication of the urgency of the playing, as Grandage also elides scenes into one another to keep the concentration flowing.
 

In the midst of all this, Redmayne gives Richard a remarkable trajectory. There’s a degree of self-consciousness in his early scenes, but from the famous abdication onwards he’s simply riveting. As Richard falls from king to mere man, Redmayne slides inexorably from dislocation to terror. There’s a kind of madness to his performance that is truly affecting. It makes you long to see his Hamlet.    

 


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