Reviews West End & Central Published 24 July 2015

Richard II

Globe Theatre ⋄ 11th July - 18th October 2015

Intensely political.

Verity Healey

Simon Godwin’s production of Richard II begins with the scene of his coronation as a young boy. Fronted by an incense swinging Carlisle and conducted in the mournful tones reserved for funerals, swelled by sorrowful dissonant Mahleresque trombones, it suggests that something more than later crimes  will come to haunt this young King. Years on and as Richard plots to dissuade the feud between accusing Bolingbroke and Mowbray, Gloucester’s finger pointing coffin is presented at Gaunt’s feet as the Duchess rants and raves over his murder.

This production balances precariously on religious spectacle and grand visual metaphors as much as the writing: the stage’s thrust is shaped like a cross and its here that Charles Edward’s shroud-wrapped Richard will eventually be dragged before being murdered at its apex, Paul Wills’ Western Christian hermitage like set is tarnished gold, the invented opening scene is presented as if a little play within a play, in jest and mocking but an allegory nonetheless as the audience is showered with sun golden like snowflakes, heralding a new but false dawn with this young King: can Richard II “God’s substitute” command the heavens and ask it rain this manna like confetti?

This is perhaps what Charles Edwards’ Richard thinks, as the whole production focuses on the King’s irreligiousness and disregard for morality and reason, even as he believes his royal role is protected by God. Harold Bloom once controversially stated that Shakespeare invented the human: this he said in appraisal of Hamlet in particular, of which Richard II could be considered an intellectual poor relation.

Looking at this production, it seems that Richard is indeed the most fully rounded as, with his David Bowie like poise, showmanship, comedic timing, his good taste and passion for words, he takes centre stage. It seems that Simon Godwin concentrates less on Bolingbroke’s (David Sturzaker) supposed level headedness and down to earth qualities and more on Richard’s hypocritical raging flamboyance so that we look fully at the man and his sin, understand his sense of haunting and being hunted and go on his journey. Bolingbroke seems genuinely in pain at the play’s end, without a hint of ambivalence. There is no sense either, of his fear of God’s revenge or that Richard’s death has given his reign an auspicious start: his lines conveying his desire to go to Jerusalem and cleanse himself are almost perfunctory, rather than fearful. And it is not only Exton’s hand that contributes to Richard’s death: the Judas like twist concentrates our minds.

Even as Paul Wills’ stage, with its almost gate like doors that are mindful of  Dante’s fourth canto in the Inferno “I passed the sevenfold gate Into a fresh green meadow” a place in hell for the gentry, and his costumes echo the dress code of a Slavic Orthodox Church, it is Richard’s eventual assassin which provides the key to understanding just how human this Richard II is, just how much he has fallen, just how much he is consumed by nihilism, just how much his fall follows the trajectory of England’s move from its medieval world to embrace the greater reason of the Renaissance Period. And just how much motive has become inspired by human government rather than religious reverence, with its Machiavellian ending: although the expected ‘Prince’ might not be who we think.

John of Gaunt too, in a shorter time span, suffers personal epiphany and development which parallels the play’s own broken revelations: “this England” is whispered out, like the twirling smoke from a once blazing fire. The actor William Gaunt’s body visibly twists and bends and denigrates through his Sceptred Isle speech as if he were England, as if what is happening to it, is happening to him.

The History Plays are perpetually timely, operating in three time periods: the time of the period within the play, the time the play is written in, the period within which it is seen. Simon Godwin’s production takes on echoes of political strife everywhere: abroad and in our own country. It is intensely political and both celebrates and mocks the celebrity driven, fashion obsessed and spotlight hungry politicians of our own age. Social media platforms and mobile phones would not be out of place here in this very modern feeling production.


Verity Healey

Verity writes for and contributes to Ministry of Counterculture and is a film facilitator for Bigfoot Arts Education. She is also a published short story writer and filmmaker.

Richard II Show Info

Directed by Simon Godwin

Cast includes Charles Edwards, Sarah Woodward, Graham Butler, William Gaunt, Oliver Boot, Graham Butler, William Chubb, Henry Everett, Jonny Glynn, Greg Haiste, Angus Imrie, Richard Katz, Ekow Quartey, Anneika Rose, David Sturzaker, and Arthur Wilson.




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