Bread & Roses Theatre
Reviewed – 22nd August 2018
“this production forgoes the emotional depth of the play and instead gives a simplistic rendition that shies away from the exploration of character”
I once had the misfortune of taking a three hour long Shakespeare exam. It’s not something I’d recommend – but even I will admit that it taught me a few important lessons about Shakespeare’s plays. Namely, that they are a) long, b) many, and c) so complex that analysis of a single scene yields more meaning than can be written down in three hours.
Richard II, though lesser known, is no less interesting to examine than Hamlet or Macbeth, and really deserves more exposure. It’s a shame, therefore, that Joshua Jewkes’ contemporary reimagining does not bring any of its many layers to life. Ostensibly set in the vague world of ‘the modern political landscape’, it follows the demise of King Richard as years of flattery begin to weaken his leadership. His decision to banish his cousin Henry Bolingbroke and reignite conflict in Ireland spark a revolution which is led by friend and foe alike. Though he is undoubtedly vain and tyrannical, the political drama that follows exposes Richard’s vulnerability and, ultimately, his sympathetic nature.
The immediate problem with this production is that this vulnerability is not apparent. Joshua King, who plays Richard, seems somewhat miscast in the role: whilst he does capture Richard’s brazen overconfidence, he does not bring any emotional depth. Richard seems one dimensional, and King’s overhasty delivery means that important moments are almost unnoticeable. The empathetic aspects of his character are never properly expressed; there is no one to truly empathise with.
A second difficulty is presented by the fact that the lines rarely sound meaningful. Too often it sounds as though the actors are reciting words that they have memorised as opposed to expressing the genuine thoughts of a character. Very few of the cast escape this trap, but luckily there are some solid performances which help alleviate these uninspired moments. Melanie Beckley is commanding and powerful as Bolingbroke, whilst Peter Hardingham captures the thoughtful wisdom of John of Gaunt, Henry’s father, very well. But the only consistent performance comes from Hannah Victory as the Duke of York. Victory is utterly convincing throughout, and her impassioned delivery brings the high stakes that are missing elsewhere.
Some aspects of Jewkes’ production do work well. The stage, lined with audience on both sides and bare except for a raised platform, evokes the atmosphere of a claustrophobic court or council chamber. The space is used efficiently, particularly during the well-choreographed and well-executed fight scenes. Jewkes also adapts the text effectively. About an hour is cut from the play’s run time, but the plot is still easy enough to follow and the characterisation is clear and consistent. Ultimately, however, this production forgoes the emotional depth of the play and instead gives a simplistic rendition that shies away from the exploration of character. There are some enjoyable moments, but they are too few and far between truly bring the play or its characters to life.
Reviewed by Harriet Corke
Bread & Roses Theatre until 25th August
Previously reviewed at this venue