Starting somewhere

So, hoping to get back into the rhythm of blogging here. Somehow.

Tonight I saw the NT Live transmission of Richard II, starring Simon Russell Beale (for Armitage fans: Home Secretary in Spooks 9 and 10, after Harry murders his predecessor, Nicholas Blake, in 9.1), widely considered one of the best if not the best English actor of his generation. His reputation was my main reason for going (my local cinema has stopped hosting them, and so seeing NT Live now involves a 200 mi round trip for me).

(So if this post sounds a little bit tired, that’s why.)

This is a very short Richard II — only an hour and forty minutes with no intermission — largely robbed of its historical context. This may or may not be a good thing, as I think the play still gets staged because it has a lot of great monologues and speeches. “Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings” is the one that pops immediately into mind for the titular Richard; or “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” for John of Gaunt. But for anyone who’s not a history maven, the play will be hard to understand except as a record of constant betrayals by largely unknown and indistinguishable historical actors. This problem is exacerbated by the totally nondescript, boring, almost featureless remainder of the actual cast and the assignment of each supporting actor to multiple roles — so if you thought seeing Richard II would give you any idea why the English nobility supported Henry Bolingbroke, or even which concrete issues were involved, this staging won’t help you out much.

The stage is one single room, decked out to look like a metal box, and the concrete reference seems to be Brexit — in this play, everyone in England is stuck in a room with everyone else, constantly arguing, regularly betraying, and occasionally assassinating each other, such that most of the cast ends up covered in either stage blood, water, dirt or mud by the end of the play. This approach is fine and theater should have contemporary resonances — but there was originally a provocative, even dangerous debate in the play about the necessary qualities of kingship that is largely shrouded here (the play was performed both on the eve of Essex’s rebellion against Elizabeth I, and again before the Queen herself on the eve of his execution). And for Shakespeare’s audience, who had a better idea of who the individual parties to the ferment against Richard were, the betrayals would have been much more breathtaking — here, they are just so much background noise, albeit noisy background noise.

I did not find Beale’s performance stunning, despite my gratitude for getting to see one of the greats of English theater so close to home. The quick tempo means the text comes at the audience fast, and since this is one of the few Shakespeare plays written solely in verse, it is sometimes extremely difficult to follow what’s being said. In terms of characterization, Beale starts off slow, but eventually develops some good moments, particularly as the story moves forward, Richard’s grasp on power (and reality) weakens, and his awareness of what he will be compelled to accept weighs on him further. Beale gives Richard a distracting mannerism — he spends a lot of the most high tension scenes grabbing at (or scratching?) his posterior with his left hand. If this is a characterization of nervousness, nonetheless I found it distracting. But NT Live does give the far away viewer a valuable perspective here, as much of the subtlety that the play does manage to achieve lies in watching Richard’s face fall, something we’d never have seen in the Almeida itself.

~ by Servetus on February 26, 2019.

2 Responses to “Starting somewhere”

  1. Somewhat shorter than the David Tennant version lol
    After watching DT I remember thinking ‘if that was someone’s introduction to William Shakespeare heaven help them’
    I think SRB has one line in the recent Mary Queen of Scots film.

    Like

    • I see that one’s almost an HOUR longer. Wow. I do think it would help to give some context. (I also think letting everyone dress in basic street clothes, as they do here, also obscures their relationships. I was reading a review just now — had forgotten Carlisle is a bishop. That does make a difference!) It’s on Digital Theatre.

      But yeah — this is definitely not the entrance point into Shakespeare for novices.

      SRB: I loved him in The Death of Stalin.

      Like

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