Review: Richard II, Shakespeare’s Globe

In a season entitled Regime Change, the all-male company are tackling Richard II, Shakespeare’s fast and loose take on the life of headstrong Richard II, this historical figure whose autocratic rule and unconventional approach to matters of state led to his cousin Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV, deposing him with the help of a large faction of his family: this schism forming the basis for the long-running Wars of the Roses. On a personal note, this was my first trip to the Globe and standing in the Yard was the only way to get in so I took a packed lunch and wore some comfortable shoes!

Mark Rylance takes on the title role and it is very much his show and this came across as both a good thing and something of a negative too. He dominates proceedings as this melancholy monarch who is lacking the political nous to deal with the challenges in his kingdom, thereby minimising the role of Bolingbroke somewhat rather than presenting them as two sides of the same coin: for indeed both of these men come to learn the same lessons, about the loneliness of the realities of being king.

I found Rylance to be extremely strong in the emotional scenes as he finally begins to realise the gravity of his situation and though these gained resonance given how his portrayal of Richard as a vain, self-obsessed dandy had played earlier, I did find that his virtuosity to be something of a distraction. He garnered laughs in unexpected places due to the exaggeration of his movements and reactions to events like the death of his uncle, it felt like too thorough a reassessment of the character in order to make him a comic hero, an interpretation that didn’t sit too well with me. He showed the selfishness of the man extremely well but consequently all of this meant he rather hogged the limelight from the rest of the ensemble for me.

John McEnery’s Gaunt and Bill Stewart’s Duke of York were both strong but Liam Brennan’s Bolingbroke suffered a little in the face of such of the focus being pulled from him. And as an all-male company, there was disappointingly little opportunity for much interesting work from those playing women as they do not have substantial roles in this play.

There was perhaps a little too much of the comedy to this particular production than I thought there would be, but this is more a matter of personal expectation than a judgment on the actual show and I’m not sure if I cared for the huge amount of focus on Rylance as a performer given he’s one of an ensemble. But all in all, it was an interesting experience, a great one for a first-timer and I particularly loved the use of period music played live which really helped to build the atmosphere inside the Globe.

 

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