The Tragedy of King Richard the Second at Almeida Theatre
In many contemporary performances of Shakespeare’s plays, directors seem to feel the need to distract from the drama with overbearing productions that give neither the audience nor the actors any room to breathe. On the contrary, Joe Hill-Gibbins’s new take on The Tragedy of King Richard the Second uses minimalism to let the words and the performers speak for themselves – resulting in a moving, often powerful experience.
These choices fit the tragedy’s mood perfectly. Following Richard II (Simon Russell Beale) from his disgrace as he loses the crown to Bolingbroke (Leo Bill) until he is finally and inevitably murdered, set designer Ultz presents us with a simple grey box reminiscent of a prison cell, making everything feel confined and depressing. Perhaps it also suggests that the king is reflecting retrospectively from within his cell – which would explain why he narrates part of his speech from act five, scene five at the beginning of the production.
Other than that, there is almost nothing – merely a few buckets with various liquids and dirt, as well as some gloves for props. Sound effects by Peter Rice are kept to a minimum, with occasional subtle throbbing underlining various speeches and moments during the plot, and louder sounds indicating the change between the acts. Consequently, the entire focus shifts onto the actors – and they are all fantastic. Everyone gives their best: especially Beale, who delivers a pristine performance as the pitiful, pathetic king, which is sure to draw a tear from even the sturdiest of souls. The whole play is performed in a single abridged setting with the whole cast constantly present on stage. When not part of the action, they go into a freeze, resulting in many a pretty – or horrific – picture.
Hill-Gibbins’s adaptation is not light-weight entertainment. The focus on the language and the heaviness of the piece may put off an audience less acquainted with Shakespeare’s works. For all others, however, it offers a superb evening of excitement with brilliant acting and great directorial decisions, proving that minimalistic productions can be just as engaging and shocking as big-budget spectacles.
For those who can’t make it to the show, The Tragedy of King Richard the Second will be broadcast live from the Almeida Theatre to 700 UK cinemas and many more worldwide on Tuesday 15th January 2019.
Photos: Marc Brenner
The Tragedy of King Richard the Second is at Almeida Theatre from 10th December 2018 until 2nd February 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch rehearsal footage from The Tragedy of King Richard the Second here: