Here's a review of a fairly recent production at the National Theatre. Sam West has gone on to still bigger things, and recently played Hamlet, also for the RSC.
The RSC’s ‘This England’ cycle – which aimed to show the whole series of history plays, from Richard II to his namesake the third – is an undeniably ambitious project. Fitting, then, that the curtain raiser has been directed by Steven Pimlott, a man with something of a reputation for experimental schemes. On entering the theatre – the Lyttleton, at the National - there was little doubt that this was such a production: rather than the lavish medieval set one might have expected, the room was entirely white, with no furniture to speak of beyond a mound of earth and a rectangular box. These recurring motifs set the tone for the production: an abundance of enthusiastically conceived ideas, some successful, some not, all provoking debate and discussion in the bar afterwards, and all making one think about the play in new and interesting ways.
The bursting into life of harsh neon lights, rather than a bugle call, heralds the opening of the play: likewise, Bolingbroke and Mowbray prepare to duel not with lances but with axes. Pimlott even (horror of horrors) plays around with the text to an extent, giving, for example, Richard’s prison soliloquy to both Bolingbroke and the Queen at other points in the play. Whilst this device may jar slightly, and unsuspend one’s disbelief, it really does drive home the way Shakespeare hints that, even though the King is a different man, nothing has really changed. We are given the impression that “the prison wherein he lives” is not in fact the prison at all, but the burden that has been placed upon him by his position.
Sam West (the actor seen talking to Julia Roberts on set in about her lovelife in Notting Hill, if you're trying to place him) is remarkable. His Richard begins as a capricious, petulant, childish lightweight, utterly unaware of his responsibilities and utterly incapable of coping with them if he were. The challenge when interpreting the character thus is to manage the bitterly ironic arrival of maturity just as it becomes useless, and West pulls it off with flying colours, delivering the aforementioned prison soliloquy with astonishing sensitivity. His Richard is an extremely complex individual, capable of great tenderness (with his queen, the excellent Catherine Walker) and great cruelty (to the aged Gaunt, of whom more later). If he is inclined to ride roughshod over the verse at times, it’s a price worth paying: I’m inclined to think that the poetry is strong enough to survive on its own, and it makes for a much more believable King than an Olivier-esque recital. This is a virtuoso performance, an achievement which confirms his place amongst the best actors of his generation, and it deserves to be feted.
Richard, though, isn’t the only star in the play – Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, has an excellent case for billing above the title too. David Troughton is the perfect foil for West: the contrast between Richard’s silliness and his gravitas is effective, and Troughton introduces a vital element of calm to proceedings, tempering his jumpy ally Northumberland (played perhaps a little too jumpily by Christopher Saul) and his frenetic usurpee. Interestingly, he’s a good deal older (-looking, anyway) than Sam West, which adds another layer of irony to the production: it’s almost as if he’s always been the senior figure, Daddy letting his son play at being in charge for a while before asserting himself.
These two are ably backed up by the supporting cast, with David Killick, as York, and the aged Alfred Burke, as Gaunt, standing out as worthy of individual mentions: Burke, in particular, delivers the famous ‘This England’ soliloquy with tremendous pathos. One or two of the junior members of the cast aren’t as capable, like Paul McEwan, who as Bushy and Exton, seems to concentrate his efforts on hysterically upstaging his peers, but the vast majority are excellent, and should be congratulated.
What else? In a production so teeming with ideas, it’s difficult to know what to mention and what to leave out. Perhaps the most effective device is the grave shaped pile of earth. The play’s elemental imagery is emphasized and articulated without losing it’s subtlety, and, it serves as a constant symbolic reminder of Gaunt’s description of ‘This blessèd plot, this earth, this realm, this England’. Inevitably, some don’t work quite as well: the insistence that the reluctant audience stand and form parliament in the deposition scene is ill-advised and takes one out of the reality of the drama and back into a London theatre.
So many things I haven’t room to mention – Bolngbroke’s eerie repetition of Exton’s lines, the haunting music, the insane recasting of Harry Percy as an SAS officer, the wonderful Alexis Daniel as Aumerle… It all adds up to one of the most interesting and well-acted Shakespeare plays on the London stage for years. And yet - the over-riding impression is that if Pimlott had trusted the text a little more, and his own ideas a little less, this could have been not just good, but truly astonishing.