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.
It wasn’t easy to get to see Richard II. It was sold out, so we figured we’d get day seats, something we’re quite used to doing. We figured Saturday would be good. Two performances, matinee and evening, thirty tickets each. Horrible weather, surely we’d get tickets? We arrived an hour early to a sight usually associated with rock concerts. People lying on the floor, the queue snaking around and around and around. It seems that that the actor playing Richard, David Tennant, is a teenage heart throb; who knew? We counted the queue, turned around and went back to the flat. On Monday morning, the weather even more blustery, we tried again, getting there even earlier, and this time, we were successful, barely.
I regret to report that the production was disappointing. The staging was static, with the actors forming an arrangement in front of a projected backdrop, and pretty much staying that way for each scene. The lines were delivered emphasizing the verse over the meaning. Perhaps to compensate, the pace was leisurely, with lots of pauses. We have been so used to seeing London productions of Shakespeare that whip along, finding new rhythms and new meanings, that I was really quite surprised. This seemed a throwback to days I had thought long gone, when The Bard was done with dignity. The design was all towering steel pillars and a metal platform wide as the stage that glided up and down. It was a lot like the Barbican, but did nothing to help us understand the play. It turned out that David Tennant was really the redeeming element – not so much in the first half, when he went along with everyone else providing formal stage pictures and stately speeches, but in the second half, he came into his own with the wonderful introspective soul-searching set pieces that Shakespeare gives Richard when he undergoing his extended fall.