Simon Russell Beale and Leo Bill shine in Joe Hill-Gibbins’ perfectly reimagined The Tragedy of King Richard the Second at the Almeida Theatre
“Thus play I in one person many people”
It’s tempting to think of this production of Shakespeare’s Richard II as specifically designed to rile up Billington and sure enough, he fell into the trap and reviewed the show he wanted to see rather than what was presented to him. He sees what Shakespeare should be; here, Joe Hill-Gibbins shows us what Shakespeare can be.
The Tragedy of King Richard the Second is undoubtedly a consequential adaptation. Compressed to 100 minutes without interval, spoken at speed and set entirely within a grey-walled cell, it is disarming and disruptive. But it also works beautifully once you’re attuned to its rhythms as it makes the blind pursuit of power its central thesis, underscored by the desperation of the elite to cling onto their political influence.
What sticks most in my mind is the melding of all the supporting characters into an anonymised ensemble of six who often move as one amorphous huddle, tracking the way they see the political winds blowing. Deviating from the norm often comes at a cost but even their assumed unity can’t stop from pointless infighting breaking out. John Mackay, Saskia Reeves and Martins Imhangbe particularly stand out here.
But Simon Russell Beale and Leo Bill tussle magnificently as Richard and Bolingbroke, both exploring something of the humanity of their positions – the impossibility of being a divine ruler, the challenge of being the one to bring them down – especially in the shifting grounds of supporters on whom they can never truly rely. The contemporary parallels suggested are a delight to muse over, particularly as they’re never hammered home.
It’s a bold, blood-soaked and often breath-taking way to present the play and thrilling with it. Getting to see Russell Beale get to be so playful is always a treat and the smartness of the production around him serves as a brilliant and useful corrective to the more-traditionally inclined interpretations of Shakespeare’s work that will of course never go away.