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RICHARD II – Arcola Theatre

unnamedOne of the key messages on the commentators’ lips during the recent celebrations of Shakespeare’s death was just how applicable his work is to the modern age. It may be that the plays he wrote are built on unerring insight into the human condition, and thus timeless. Or, it may be that he was smart enough to see that men and women will always do silly things for love, war will always makes a good story, and politics of rule is always going to be contentious, dramatic and will repeat in a cyclical pattern so history can easily be made proxy for current events. As it notes in the programme for Richard II, Queen Elizabeth I remarked “I am Richard II, know ye not that?”.

Sometimes it can be inferred subtly, and sometimes, like with this version, the link is more boldly drawn with a little bit of rewriting and a shift to a modern setting. Here, the dramatic Shakespearean language of Richard’s court remains, but the roles are transferred somewhat to that of government ministers, SPADS and party colleagues with the eye on the top spot.

All of which is represented fantastically. Bolingbroke’s machinations to gain Richard’s throne include a strong media strategy, and the production enjoyably reflects our modern thirst for rolling news “content”, with updating headlines flashing at every plot point on TVs around the set. An unfortunate failing in the production though is that it doesn’t carry the idea of modern media influence in the political process through. We are given the headlines, but really in any political intrigue or power-play today a modern audience would demand all the salacious details, something which Shakespeare does not give, denying us a full modern experience. This unfortunately means the production has to make do with a slightly incongruous translation.

Making up for this though, and for the density of the text (fine for Shakespeare fans, but the first half does involve a lot of talking and verbal dancing that can be difficult to follow before a more action filled Act 2), is the startlingly fine cast. Tim Delap as Richard is as rich a performance as can be found. At once a whimpering cur, torn between wanting to be King and refusing to accept responsibility (delegating responsibility to God), and a petulant, sneering monarch making arch comments about how powerful he is to his subjects. Opposite him is Hermione Gulliford as Harri Bolingbroke, a sharp usurper to the crown with a powerful ambition and the strategic mind to realise it.

Set plainly in an office situation with some decanters and desk space, it is that aforementioned dense wordplay and the magnetism of all the players (Delap and Gulliford are absolutely not alone in turning in fine performances) that provides the draw. A modern political masterclass delivered simply and effectively, creating a great Shakespearean evening but also a voyeuristic look at modern intra-party conflict.

Writing about this play, the Telegraph suggested that David Cameron should make time to go and see it. With full agreement, can we also add that anyone hoping to make a career in crisis PR or public affairs also hot-foots it to the Arcola before the 7th?

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Reviewed 03/05/16

By Karl O’Doherty

3rd May – 7th May.
24 Ashwin St, London E8 3DL.

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