I love The Globe. I love its atmosphere, being in the open air, the live music and the interaction between performers and groundlings. I’m happy to report this season’s Richard II delivers on all counts. The haughty king, his pampered courtiers and rebellious nobles are brought vividly to life in a glittering and unexpectedly funny production.
As anointed king, with a divine right to rule, Richard has an understandably high opinion of himself. Crowned a boy-king, he has grown up fey and self-absorbed, as demonstrated when he casually flicks through swatches of sumptuous fabrics when he should be concentrating on matters of state.
Charles Edwards conveys Richard’s vanity and hubris superbly, all jutting chin and raised disdainful eyebrow, revelling in the fawning company of his peacock-like courtiers. He swishes round the stage, dressed in immaculate ivory robes and wrapped in egotism. Edwards’s strong performance as a monarch so assured of his own near-divinity makes Richard’s fall harder and more pitiful when it comes.
Richard’s nemesis, Bolingbroke, is played with brusque intensity by David Sturzaker. A man of action with a grudge against the king, Bolingbroke’s bloodline also gives him a claim to the throne. He returns to England from exile and, with the nobility’s support, challenges Richard’s fitness to rule. Richard is taken captive, forced to abdicate and name Bolingbroke his successor. And as if this wasn’t bad enough, an assassin’s blade finishes him off in prison.
Given that deposing monarchs is not usually a laughing matter, director Simon Godwin and the cast find a rich seam of humour in the play. The York family are especially funny, drawing the audience into their domestic arguments. The groundlings were on particularly sparky form at the performance I attended, nearly upstaging William Chubb (who I saw in Great Britain at the National Theatre and who does a marvellous line in exasperated authority figures) and Sarah Woodward, as the squabbling Duke and Duchess of York fighting over a pair of boots.
However, these elements do not detract from the play’s serious substance. Edwards and William Gaunt (playing the king’s uncle, John of Gaunt) particularly stand out for the depth they bring to their roles. In the prison scenes, Edwards movingly conveys Richard’s vulnerability as he comes to terms with his reduced status as a mere man.
And hearing Gaunt deliver the famous “this scepter’d isle” speech is imprinted on my memory forever. His natural way with Shakespeare’s words, his presence and his gravitas made this a perfect match of actor and character. The resonance of his voice and the emotion with which he spoke the dying John of Gaunt’s verses gave me goosebumps!
The production also impresses with its exceptionally beautiful setting, every surface glowing with burnished gold. The designer, Paul Wills, must surely have taken inspiration from an altarpiece made for Richard in the last few years of his reign, the Wilton Diptych, which can be seen at the National Gallery. The bright blues of Richard’s heraldic banners and the golden surroundings perfectly evoke this medieval work of art.
And while the lustrous set dazzles, the treacherous deeds on stage remind us that beneath gleaming surfaces there are always dark undercurrents flowing…