The Royal Shakespeare Company recently undertook the mammoth task of performing the cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays in Stratford upon Avon to great acclaim. This successful set of productions is now showing at the Roundhouse in Camden, a performance space that seems uncannily reminiscent of the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford.
The opening scene grabs the audience’s attention by creating an instant atmosphere of expectation. The choreography also acts as an ingenious way to bring the corpse of the murdered Duke of Gloucester (Chuk Iwuji) onto the stage. Richard’s (Jonathan Slinger) entrance shocking; his character is like no other. Frivolous and flamboyant in appearance, arrogant and camp in his speech, he is a captivating character. His presence dominates the stage throughout the play, leaving the audience in curious anticipation of his next actions.
Similarly captivating is this production’s infusion of dance and music into the performance, with formal dance scenes making a powerful impact by creating an oppressive atmosphere in an already oppressive play.
As is the current trend with Shakespeare productions, director Michael Boyd makes full use of the theatre, with actors appearing from all corners and heights of the arena, and even from beneath the stage. Very much in the inventive style of RSC performances, the enactment of Bolingbroke (Clive Wood) and Mowbray’s (John Mackay) duel is a theatrical feat, with saddles and stirrups representing horses, suspended and swinging over and above audience members. Simple lighting effects also add much to the production, bringing alive the stark staging. Emphasising the contrast between town and country (as within so many of Shakespeare’s works), a simple green tinted light and gentle birdsong simply but effectively transports the audience to an entirely different surrounding.
One of the dazzling performances in this production is surely from Roger Watkins who plays John of Gaunt. His delivery of the famous ‘This England’ monologue is delivered with such tremendous patriotic gusto that the entire audience is swept up in his anger.
Again, Slinger presents a wonderfully complex Richard II. On the surface, he is an intriguing but largely dislikeable character, but you find yourself in an internal struggle, warming to him through his sharp sense of humour. After the heart-breaking death of Gaunt, Richard II feels compelled to pray, yet his comically careless manner of doing so is irrepressibly humorous. This production’s take on the King is an undeniably homosexual one, while his wife, Queen Isabel, is a mere accessory for the majority of the play, and certainly for the duration of his reign, suffering the occasional, inevitable jokes about ‘my queen.’
The RSC is not only showcasing their abilities in performing the entire history cycle with the same cast, but even in each performance you see hints of their versatility as performers. One plays the piano (and manages to do this whilst suspended form the ceiling), and most display their dancing and singing abilities at various stages throughout, to an admirable level of competency.
I genuinely struggle in placing my sympathies in this production, which incidentally was one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much. Richard’s behaviour is in many ways ill-fitting of his position as king. Indeed, when he is deposed, he has tantrums like a small child. His feminine temperament is contrasted against, and overthrown by the powerful masculinity of Bolingbroke and his followers. The deposition scene is painful viewing; you can quite see why this scene was banned in Elizabeth I’s time. The scene swells with humiliation and pain, and the stripping off of his elaborate costume well-illustrates his descent into the anonymity of being just like all of his subjects.
The uncomfortable, unsettled, and tragic occurrences that conclude the play leave the audience drained of emotion, with the feeling that they have really shared in the pain and demise of a once-great, or at least greatly-feared man. With such great performances across the whole cast, and with a few sparkling gems embedded within, this performance doesn’t disappoint.