It was with great anticipation that I went to the Almeida to see Simon Russell Beale in The Tragedy of Richard II. He had been a brilliant Timon of Athens at the National in 2012, in a startling production by Nicholas Hyntner that connected Shakespeare’s stark fable to the Occupy movement and Wall Street corruption. I knew that this Richard II had been reworked to focus on the theme of solitary incarceration, and I thought “what a good idea!” Richard in his cell suffers the disintegration of his personality, and halucinates the events that led him to his ordeal. Richard’s agonized musings, rather than historical events, are now the core of the drama.
Exploring Shakespeare in this way is very like the experiments back in the sixties and seventies, by Charles Marowitz, Peter Brook and many more. Unfortunately, this production incorporated another aspect of those experiments: real things happening to real people (actors) on stage.
In this Richard II, Beale is hosed with water and has a bucket of filth poured over his head. A bucket labeled “blood” is sprayed over the stage. And so forth.
Well, Mr. Beale is a good sport. However, the play is distorted by these devices. Richard’s suffering evaporates, while we watch the actor letting himself be abused, and wonder what he is thinking, what he is feeling, why he lets them do it to him.
There are kinds of performances where we watch real things happen to real people: prize fights, pornography, gladiatorial spectacles and so forth. They are fascinating in their way, no doubt, but I had come to witness theatrical suffering, and the real discomfort of the actor was enormously distracting.