The Old Vic, London SE1
Opened 4 October, 2005

On the press night, an unexpected surge of power during the first half led Richard II to become badly unbalanced.  I mean that an electrical glitch fouled up the lighting and sound, but it’s a terrific metaphor for the first part of Shakespeare’s eight-play history cycle.  Richard begins as a well-meaning but weak king; when challenged and then deposed by the subsequent Henry IV, he declines into depression and madness.

Kevin Spacey’s first season at the Old Vic did solid business, but critically was seen as very disappointing. There’s been a sense that he badly needed to pull off some kind of coup in 2005-06.  I think this show – his first Shakespeare in Britain, and (incredibly) ex-RSC chief Trevor Nunn’s first go at directing this play – does the trick.  It’s clear, it’s contemporary, and Spacey is outstanding as King Richard.

You can see Spacey’s Richard thinking it’s enough to simply be the rightful king, and occasionally act kingly.  But around halfway through, he realises he can either fight Henry Bolingbroke and lose, or give in to Henry’s demands and become a hostage to his whims.  There’s a particular moment when this Richard visibly plumps for the latter option, and soon after realises all the ramifications and grows hysterical.

Director Nunn makes great use of video. I know, it’s old hat to “update” Shakespeare like this, but on this occasion it makes its point beautifully sharply.  Video designers Dick Straker and Sven Ortel mix onstage footage(sometimes tellingly re-edited) with material from real royal events and even from riots.  The result is a trenchant lesson in how modern media define, and in some ways manufacture, the stories they cover.

It’s a strong cast: Julian Glover, Oliver Cotton, David Collings, and Ben Miles as a Bolingbroke who half-sees that the story of the nation’s fate has outpaced his ideas just like Richard’s.  There’s no charismatic figure like Hal, Falstaff or Richard Crookback in some of the other history plays, to keep us riveted to the endless politicking.  But for once the cliché is true: the play really is made relevant to today.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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