Now and again one encounters an outdoor show which is augmented by special effects from God. At the matinee performance I saw, peals of thunder came as if on cue for all the most portentous lines in the second half of Shakespeare's history play. Inevitably, though, the storm grew closer and the Almighty's stage management more obtrusive. The performance was ultimately rained off, abandoned at the very moment when the unhappy Richard passes his crown to the usurper Bolingbroke in Act IV.
In many ways, the weather was the most novel aspect of Steven Berkoff's production in Ludlow Castle's inner bailey. The director's pre-performance speech contained the mandatory graceless bile from him about critics, with the implication that we couldn't stomach seeing anything so different. (The man's vanity is such that he gets billing above Shakespeare on the programme cover.) In truth, we're fed up with so much more of the same. Granted, Berkoff doesn't often set his work in the Victorian era (a royal court in frock coats, with top hats and canes), but the rest – the usual grotesquely stylised performances, the usual unfocused excoriation of the upper classes – is yawnsomely unexceptional.
Timothy Walker's king is effetely self-pitying, treating even his humiliation and downfall as a series of cues for orotund set pieces. He is never any match for Joseph Millson's Bolingbroke, who manages to blend passion with dignity even whilst the actor pays lip-service to Berkoffian stylistic excess. The venerable Michael Cronin as John of Gaunt admirably eschews even such nods toward his director's fixations; his "this England" speech succeeds in vanquishing the pointless synthesized strings with which Berkoff underscores it. Julia Tarnoky's queen is a fluttering, whooping, scarlet nightmare.
Berkoff may believe he has fashioned an indictment of the imperial ruling class, but he has nothing to arraign them against, other than his own inexhaustible scorn. The school parties who made up the bulk of the audience will have learned little from the production unless it be why so little attention is paid to Berkoff these days. It's telling that he has now fetched up in the province of summer Shakespeare, so often a haven of unsensational conservatism.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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