I think it’s fair to say that one of the more obscure of Shakespeare’s history plays, and one whose plot revolves around questions of divine right and a civil intrigue that bears a firm period stamp, is a tough feat to pull off. So it’s a testament to the careful and intelligent handling of Shakespeare’s material by the cast of Richard II, under the direction of Christopher White, that this production did so, and did so with a definite and personalised mark.
What came across throughout was how comfortable each actor felt with the lines they were delivering. Almost every member of White’s cast spoke with the kind of effortlessness that proved they not only understood the meaning of the words they were using but, crucially, the rhythm with which they needed to be used. Tom Curzon as Henry Bolingbroke was particularly notable in this respect. I enjoyed the calmness with which which he spoke his lines, guarding his emotion only for the most forceful moments. In fact, remarkably few moments were lost to tripped or garbled lines across the cast; it was because of this that the play could remain comprehensible throughout.
In its fluency, the production nailed the first requirement of Shakespeare. But what made it unique was its determination to do more than just speak the lines. Instead of giving into the temptation of taking Shakespeare’s language, giving it suitable gravity, and making it theatrical, this cast played with the lines and made them their own. Obviously, they had taken pains to notice the shifts in tone and, through a personalised choice of emphasis, allowed Shakespeare’s wordplay to come through. It wasn’t just serious; it was genuinely funny and it was the moments of comedy that I most enjoyed.
These moments gathered force in the second half. I was particularly impressed by White’s daring in sustaining the play’s humour right up until the final scenes. In the lead role, Yash Saraf deserves praise for the equal daringness he showed in his willingness to work with this decision. Even as he spoke of his eyes famously “full of tears”, it was with a mischievousness that brought out Richard’s endless propensity for wordplay and went beyond the line itself. His soliloquy in Act Five Scene Five was masterful. Evidently, Saraf shared White’s commitment to getting to the bottom of Shakespeare’s knotty text and tightly woven into his performance were insights to be shared with his audience too.
If anything, the comedy that the second half provided and that Saraf fostered could have been brought sooner. My one reserve was that the play was slow to reach the force that it eventually did. Perhaps Curzon was the only actor whose brilliance was evident from the outset. But, the strength of the play at its end meant that this didn’t matter. Against a lovely traditional backdrop by set-designer, Anna Nichols-Pike, and lighting that complimented her stained class windows perfectly, the production was a triumph.
If not experimental, this was certainly an intelligent production of Shakespeare: it was clear that White and his actors had got seriously to grips with the texture of the play. Evidently, the team behind Richard II know their stuff.