The key to Michael Grandage’s success is his unfashionable refusal to give audiences an easy ride. For his farewell as a.d. of London’s Donmar Warehouse he has chosen Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” an austere history play about an old regime overthrown by a usurper. But instead of brandishing guns, video or an overarching concept to signal “relevance,” he forces audiences to become active in the theatrical experience simply by gluing them to the text, the action and, crucially, the interaction of a uniformly strong cast led by a intense Eddie Redmayne.
Grandage immediately underlines Richard’s defining belief in the doctrine of the divine right of kings. Adam Cork’s bells toll in the background and beneath the gilded Gothic arches on Richard Kent’s castellated-wall set sits Richard, head bowed, as the audience comes into his hushed presence.
The literal and metaphorical majesty of that opening sequence accords Redmayne all the necessary status he needs in a play that sees him fall from king to man. It also allows him to be as willful and petulant as he wishes — very — without losing authority.
It’s that high-handed manner, as much as the business of his own banishment by the king, which is questioned by Richard’s rival Bolingbroke. In keeping with Grandage’s approach, Andrew Buchan doesn’t play him as the obvious master manipulator. If he’s too obvious a power-player, why would anyone side with him? In contrast with Redmayne’s handling of Richard’s conscious poetry, Buchan’s direct verse-speaking shows a man driven by need, his plain-dealing way with language making sense of Richard’s wry observation of Bolingbroke’s courtship of “the common people, / How he did seem to dive into their hearts.”
That clarity and drive is a feature of almost every performance. In lesser hands the play can drown in argumentative self-reflection, but these actors keep the issues of kingship, loyalty and careerism on the front foot with Grandage eliding scenes into one another to keep the concentration flowing. The unusually fleet running time is an indication of the urgency of the playing.
As John of Gaunt, Michael Hadley is not content merely to deliver one of the play’s most famous speeches as a hymn to old England, the “precious stone set in a silver sea.” The character is dying, but Hadley abandons the notion of a deathbed oration partly because there’s no bed or, indeed, any furniture except the throne. Instead, he shakes with the rage of a man scandalized by Richard’s behavior. His controlled fury at the decline of the country he loves invigorates the scene.
“Richard II” is far from being Shakespeare’s richest play. Beyond the central pair at loggerheads, not only are there no real subplots, but with the possible exception of Ron Cook’s nicely taut Duke of York, there are few roles that develop or grow. But the combination of the world conjured by the creative team and the clarity of the intentions makes the dominant politicking unusually gripping.
In the early stages, Redmayne plays the youth card and gleams with witty disdain. Occasionally, however, he resorts to over-illustration, indicating a degree of self-consciousness. But from Richard’s abdication onwards he’s simply riveting, offering and snatching back the crown and, shockingly, heaving a stunned Bolingbroke into the throne.
Given that the play is about handing over responsibility, it’s a fitting finale to Grandage’s headline-making, decade-long tenure. The distilled power of the production, however, vindicates the choice of play as being anything but sentimental.