Review of Richard II

Phoenix Theatre

Times Literary Supplement9-15 Dic. 1988 © the estate of eric sams


    It is refreshing to see Shakespeare untrammelled by visual fuss. The next step in this desirable direction should be to project his text with equal clarity; but that overdue renaissance rather misfires at the Phoenix. Carl Toms presents the action on two levels, with royalty and entourage aloft on throne or battlements, and all others on the ground, admiring or aspiring. The king's exalted position often looks as precarious as it later proves. But it is eye-catching. Not only the supporting cast but the theatre‑going public are forced to look up to their bright star. Derek Jacobi in the name part is well worth watching; he memorably combines impressive eloquence with expressive mien and thoughtful gesture, such as the insolent retention and inversion of the crown he is ostensibly resigning. But too much vital detail is lost in the general dazzle. Shakespeare's running symbolism of the sun king's glistering coach, destined post haste for the dark, affords some textual justification for treating the en­tire play as a star vehicle, yet it should surely remain what its author called a tragical history, and never become, not even momentarily, a comical case-history. This Richard is aimed at those who imagine him as a fragmented perso­nality in need of psychiatric help, or at least frequent cold baths. It should be possible to enact a weak sad king on the stage without distorting the rhythm and sense of the verse assigned to him throughout this most lyrical of all the canonical plays

     The constant passionate poeticizing is a deliberate device designed to enlist our sym­pathy. This however is soon forfeited by a reigning monarch who, when not yelling or whining, too often affects a curious sing-song which predictably provokes unkind laughter, for example at what should have been the movingly forlorn cry "oh flattering glass". The exaggerated intonation and by-play that achieve such untoward effects should be in­stantly excised; they mar a potentially fine performance.

    The same insistent focus on one exalted figure also blurs the dramatic vision. Thus, the very first scene of confrontation, on which the whole exposition depends, sags and drags be­cause attention is diverted from the horizontal ground-level hatred between Mowbray and Bolingbroke (well played by Pete Postlethwaite and David Rintoul respectively) up into the vertical plane of subordination to a lofty throne. The salient points about civil unrest and menace within the realm are not hammered home with sufficient force. Similarly, John of Gaunt (Robert Eddison) is unconvincingly depicted as dying on his feet, and in that literal sense alone standing up to his sovereign, who petulantly strikes him; he is thus doubly deprived of the dignity and presence that the situation demands. Bolingbroke, soon to succeed as the strong ruler Henry IV, is also subordinated, though he and his faction almost as many lines as Richard and his. Under the direction of Clifford Williams, the balance of the play is so tilted towards the title role that much of its content is lost. This is the more unfortunate in that David Rintoul shows ever, sign of high acting talent; he ought nor to be eclipsed, not even voluntarily, by his spot-lit antagonist. As if in protest, Gaunt and Bolingbroke often stress their own words rather wilfully; thus the forced irony of "demi-Paradise, strikes a jarring discord in Gaunt's hymn of praise to England.

     There is compensation in the excellent verse-speaking of Gwynn Beech (Sir John Bushey), Robert Swann (Bishop of Carlisle) and Barbara Jefford (Duchess of York), who adds a welcome touch of intentional and legitimate humour. Also eloquent is Marc Wilkinson's music, which proves more successful than the scenery in evoking a Queen's garden. The property department should invest in some disposable mirrors that can crack into the stipulated hundred shivers, instead of staying obstinately whole – as if to insist that Shakespeare's Richard II, despite appearances, is really an integral creation and not an identity crisis.