Richard II at Arcola Theatre
Jack Gamble and Quentin Beroud’s Richard II is the first Shakespeare play to have been performed at the House of Commons. The opening performance at the prestigious site sought to emphasise the relocation of the play into modern Westminster by literally taking the action there. Now at Arcola Theatre, the set consists of little more than a desk and regal chairs hinting at the political-meets-royal dimension of the reinterpretation. The modernisation of Richard II is intended to point out that the essence of political conflict is timeless, and that the dynamics of power can be easily transferred and applied to a modern setting.
Richard is a proud yet anxious leader whose conflicts with politician and cousin Bolingbroke (here, a female character) lead to media wars and ruthless manoeuvres to gain power. Amid accusations and scandals, a pack of aides cause further havoc in the background. Tim Delap is for the most part effective as Richard, but the character does lack the psychological depth that would justify the inner turmoil that plagues him; as things stand, it seems incongruous with the relatively small-scale disappointments he experiences. Hermione Gulliford is in full control as Harri Bolingbroke and delivers her lines with force and authority.
The choice to retain Shakespeare’s language is to an extent understandable as its effectiveness never fades, but it does become problematic as there is a marked dissonance between the old language and 21st century besuited Westminster. The themes of the play are also less flexible than in some other works by Shakespeare: Richard II is firmly rooted in its analysis of monarchial disputes and the reality surrounding the distribution of power within a royal clan, and this makes some passages sit awkwardly between the ideologies of modern politicians and the concerns of old monarchs.
The action is framed by screens displaying videos in live-news fashion, with snappy captions summarising the main events and tabloid headlines exposing scandals. In spite of this multimedia approach, the rhythm of the play is somewhat static: while the power struggles are rife and there are frequent shake-ups in the hierarchy, there is no variation in the tempo or tone. The cast does a great job of portraying modern politicians but the language, and the very nature of the play, creates a distance between the characters and their actions, which prevents the audience from fully engaging.
Richard II is on at Arcola Theatre from 3rd until 7th May 2016, for further information or to book visit here.