Richard II

KIERAN CORCORAN: Richard II talks the talk, but can it walk the walk?

ADC Theatre, 1st-5th May, 7.45pm, £6-10

Directed by George Johnston

[rating: 3/5]

Shakespeare and the ADC never seem to rub along particularly well. Despite obvious talent, some good directorial calls and a solid aesthetic, Richard II doesn’t break the three-star trend.

The main problem was one of tone. Shakespeare’s pinwheel play dips into low humour for moments only to spring back to the tragic, but this production’s transitions weren’t nimble enough to keep up. A rush to turn even serious scenes into Carry On Courtier is pervasive as brief flashes of humour inflate beyond all proportion, and any sense of the play’s insistent gravitas is jettisoned.

Funny Shakespeare is a much lower hanging fruit than serious and affecting Shakespeare, and let’s just say that George Johnston’s approach to Richard II didn’t exactly require a cherry picker. The subtly-nuanced rhetoric of Richard and his court was too often played as coarse banter, depriving the audience of its native richness. Like Hamlet, Richard is a protagonist with the rare ability to be funny and sad at the same time. It takes rare talent in an actor to bring this to the stage, and while Alex Gomar managed it at times (the abdication scene in particular was excellent), much was lost.

In keeping with this comic interpretation came an almost patronisingly emphatic style. The underlying assumption, seemingly, was that we need slow and loud delivery, and lots of big hand gestures, to follow properly. It was a little overbearing.

The happy upshot of this singular focus was the impression that every character really knew their way around the lines they were speaking. Shakespeare’s poetry is seldom well-served by amateurs, but this cast had taken the time to weigh up every stop and pause, with a pleasingly lyrical result.

Mowbray’s brief turn on stage (courtesy of the prolific Joey Akubeze) was particularly good for this, handling his lines with fitting fluency and bile. Quentin Beroud as his opposite, Bolingbroke, started well but often let an overly macho characterisation flatten out the play’s most intriguing character. Charlie Merriman’s obsequious Northumberland was slick and entertaining, and Aumerle, played by Sam Sloman, smacks excellently of early Jude Law.

Undoubtedly the worst contributions to the performance came from the audience, whom I’m not reviewing but would definitely get one star if I were. Presumably friends of the cast, they laughed loudly and often at nothing in particular. Disruptive as fuck, even if seeing your mate wear tights on-stage probably is the most authentically hilarious experience of your life.

Regardless of the needless titters they summoned from the audience (endured admirably the the cast), the sumptuous period dress did an excellent job anchoring the production in its courtly world, as well as giving easy indication of ranks and identity. It combined with an aptly spare set, only let down by a truly bizarre Scooby Doo trapdoor throne, to form an appropriately Shakespearean mixture of definition and flexibility.

Richard II looks the part, but doesn’t have the kind of regal bearing necessary to fill out its regalia, or the strength to support its crown. The Shakespeare with the most self-evident sense of its own grandeur needs to be taken more seriously.

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University of Cambridge