“Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” That belter of a quote is actually from Macbeth, but I’ve jauntily and intelligently repurposed it here to discuss Joe Hill-Gibbins and his fresh production of Richard II (given its full whack title “The Tragedy Of King Richard The Second” here) at the Almeida.
Because, to me, that seems to be the maxim Hill-Gibbins has adopted throughout the regular assaults on Shakespeare that have defined the latter years of his career. No other director, save perhaps Emma Rice, has such a healthy disrespect for the Bard. And no other director, save perhaps Emma Rice, is so thrillingly willing to stick two fingers up to the audience’s expectations of his plays and expose their underlying absurdity.
He’s plonked Measure For Measure on a pile of inflatable sex dolls. He’s staged A Midsummer Night’s Dream on a field of sticky mud. And now, he’s stuffed Richard II inside a big metal box, splash it with buckets of blood, soil and water, and stuck it on fast forward. The cast sprint through the drastically cut text as if they’ve got to run for the last train home. 100 minutes straight-through feels like about half an hour. No sooner has Bolingbroke been banished, then he’s back again to snatch the crown of Richard’s head and chuck him in prison. It all happens in the blink of an eye. Characters are killed off without ceremony, buckets of blood just dunked over their heads. Richard’s death is teased out in a shower of soil and water. The whole thing even ends without much fanfare.
This is Shakespeare as petty playground squabble, rather than stately struggle for the throne. Outside of Richard and Bolingbroke, the other roles are almost indistinguishable – the rest of the cast form some sort of bickering, badgering mob that gangs up on whoever happens to take the floor. They shuffle around the edges of ULTZ’s box set, throwing gloved challenges at each other with stroppy impetuousness, barely daring to say anything for fear of making themselves a target.
Which, I think, is pretty much Joe Hill-Gibbins’ point – to emphasise the fragility and ridiculousness of power, and the absolute falseness of all those who pursue it. And yes, that does strike a chord or two right now, but it would be a valid take on the play whenever it was delivered, Brexit shitshow rolling on in the background or no. With his sex-driven take on Measure For Measure, and his seamy staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and now this, it feels like Hill-Gibbins is on a mission to point out the sheer hypocrisy of modern life through Shakespeare. To change our perspective on plays we think we know, and thus change our perspective on life. Which I am fully in favour of. If it’s a choice between Hill-Gibbins and the RSC, I’d go for Joe every single time.
What he’s got in his favour here, of course, is Simon Russell Beale. No matter how much you fillet and fiddle about with a text, you can’t keep a good verse-speaker down. Beale is predictably superb, rattling through some tongue-twisting lines at light-speed, throwing out some famous lines with casual abandon (there’s a great moment when he off-handedly asks Bolingbroke to repeat himself, as if he’s genuinely misheard him), then slowing down to savour some unexpected passages. Two in particular – the Pomfret Castle prison speech (“I have been studying how I might compare this prison where I live unto the world…”, that one), which Hill-Gibbins actually opens with, cunningly suggesting the whole episode is playing out in Richard’s tortured memory; and a few lines from the scene in the Tower: “The love of wicked men converts to fear, that fear to hate, and hate turns one or both to worthy danger and deserved death.” A potent point, and one that feels hugely significant in Hill-Gibbins’ production when delivered with sobering stateliness by Beale.
He’s matched by Leo Bill, giving perhaps the finest performance of his career to date as a wheedling, insecure Bolingbroke. Traditionally, Richard’s usurper is a steadfast, strong-headed man of the people, but not here. Hopping about as if he’s treading on hot coals, and whimpering in the face real obstruction, even when he robs Richard of the crown. It’s a character reading that fits entirely with the rest of the show. Bolingbroke usually seems to rise inexorably as Richard falls, but that’s not quite how Hill-Gibbins plans this play out. There are no winners in his stripped-back vision of seemingly pointless squabbling. Richard is a loser, for sure. But so are we all.
As Bolingbroke complains when the Duke and Duchess of York burst into his bedchamber to squabble over their sons treason, “Our scene is alter’d from a serious thing, and now changed to ‘The Beggar and the King.” In Hill-Gibbins’ timely staging, affairs of state descend into unfunny farce. Now where have I seen that happen recently?
The Tragedy of King Richard the Second is on at the Almeida Theatre until 2nd February 2018. More info here.