Shakespeare’s Richard II follows the fates of England’s impetuous and egotistical leader of the late 14th century, a man more concerned with lavishing extravagant favours on his close allies than justly governing his troubled country and who wholeheartedly believed in his divine right of power; sound familiar?
It’s taken Bristol’s Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory twelve years of spring seasons to put on one of the history plays but their timing, it seems, couldn’t have been more astute. The daily updates of revolutions in Egypt and Libya prove that a play about the machinations of medieval politics unquestionably still has resonance today.
As in all of director Andrew Hilton’s productions, the play’s focus is on the clarity and fluidity of the language to facilitate crystal-clear storytelling. He lets Shakespeare’s words do the work and once fully understood, we can see Richard II is a straightforward play about a misguided king whose profligate ways go too far: having been harshly banished by Richard to France, Henry Bullingbrooke returns and, with the backing of many powerful nobles, topples the king to seize the crown for himself. It is the story of one man’s downfall, plummeting from king to prisoner with such speed and drama that Hilton argues in the programme that this is not a ‘history’ play but an exploration of human conflict and in fact one of Shakespeare’s first great tragedies.
The pace is a little slow at first and takes some patience but once characters and motives have been established, the drama unfolds with increasing tension and intrigue until Richard’s untimely end. Scenes flow at a tender pace or race past with a welcome urgency but the pillar of the production that holds everything together fantastically well is the flawless performance given by John Heffernan as King Richard.
In the early scenes he is eager and playful, even camp with boyish verve as his amuses himself playing king. A tall and slender figure, his red hair and golden-white robes make him positively glow against the brown and black hues of those around him but before long, his regal and pure aura turn into a fragile vulnerability. The scenes where Richard is loosing grip on his crown and country are where Heffernan really shines and he manages to extract every nuance of sorrow, fear and beauty from the script imaginable. Several tender monologues including the Hollow Crown speech are particularly stunning as he poetically and tenderly describes the burdens of kingship.
When he is finally toppled, Heffernan is just as engaging to watch as the broken man wandering barefoot around across the stage’s cold tiles gesturing at the audience with confused but resigned eyes; “I well remember the favours of these men: were they not mine? Did they not sometime cry, ‘all hail!’ to me?” We are intimately sat in the round watching and the audience that were once his royal court are now the four walls of his prison.
Heffernan is the unequivocal star of this production but he is allowed to shine by the quality of the rest of the company around him. Actors might have a couple of scenes or just a couple of lines but the commitment and belief in their performances were tangible (although the spineless Duke of Aumerle seemed to lack conviction at times). All deserve a mention but to name-check all of the twenty-strong cast would leave room for little else so I’ll just note the stand-out performances from Benjamin Whitrow as John of Gaunt, Roland Oliver as the Duke of York and Jack Bannell as Henry Percy.
It may have taken Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory a while to tackle one of Shakespeare’s histories but with present global politics, a Royal wedding on the way and The King’s Speech cleaning up at the Box Office and Oscars, they couldn’t have chosen a better time to do an English monarchy play. Although it must be underlined, even without these beneficial external factors, Richard II would still stand up as a fantastic production.