×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

London Theater Review: ‘The Tragedy of King Richard the Second’

"Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown." Simon Russell Beale's king shows how powerless the powerful can be as Britain faces its own political paralysis.

With:
Simon Russell Beale, Leo Bill, Martins Imhangbe, Natalie Klamer, John Mackay, Joseph Mydall, Saskia Reeves, Robin Weaver.

1 hour 40 minutes

Political plotting has become a national pastime in Britain. Hardly a week goes by without an attempted parliamentary coup. “The Tragedy of King Richard the Second,” Joe Hill-Gibbins’ stark distillation of “Richard II” starring a superlative Simon Russell Beale at the Almeida Theatre, keys into that febrile climate of treachery and mistrust. With courtiers circling his crown like vultures, Russell Beale’s Richard becomes a paranoid, panic-stricken king: a monarch so wary of defenestration and, with it, death that his reign seizes up as if rigor mortis had set in. A leader caught in the headlights, a ruling class waiting to strike, a nation gripped by paralysis — what could better encapsulate Brexit Britain?

Not that Hill-Gibbins’ production is pat. This is a psychological study of power and its accompanying perils. Stripped back to a skeletal plot that can, admittedly, be hard to follow, Shakespeare’s most poetic history play becomes a political thriller — a tale of how to topple of a king. Leo Bill’s dead-eyed Bollingbroke returns from exile with a revolutionary fervor, homing in on Richard’s crown like a heat-seeking missile. But he and his supporters must pick their moment or else their treacherous efforts will mean their deaths. With nobles nipping at the king’s heels, testing their strength then retreating into the crowd, this becomes a twitchy, jittery staging, always on edge. The pulse of war drums gets under the skin and designer Ultz’s iron-grey box set offers no escape. It turns civil war into a cage-fight to the death.

Beginning at the end, with a dethroned Richard philosophizing in jail, Hill-Gibbins gives the play a Taoist twist. Is this a man who dreamed himself king, or a king who wakes to find himself a man? The difference between the two states is slight — a simple gold crown that, here, seems to have teeth. The second Russell Beale slips it on, Richard’s mortal vulnerability vanishes into stately authority. Its presence gives him absolute power — the ability to affect the world with a word. Subjects fall silent whenever he speaks and, on his say-so, rebels like Bollingbroke can be instantly banished.

It is an unnatural position, as Russell Beale makes brilliantly clear. Instead of the usual ill-equipped king, too meek to find the mettle required to rule, his Richard is simply in an impossible fix. He is, effectively, in a snake pit surrounded by vipers and, though he preaches peace outwardly, he snaps viciously at anyone who might step out of line. Adopting a princely posture, hands on his regal hips, it’s not that he’s ineffectual, but that he’s outnumbered, fighting potential foes on all sides.

By framing Richard’s courtiers as a chorus rather than distinct characters, Hill-Gibbins shifts the center of the play. The six-strong ensemble see-saws between Richard and Bollingbroke, from royalists to rebels, huddling like a flock of flamingos as if wary of stepping away from the safety of the pack. Isolated traitors wind up dead, modishly sploshed with a slop-bucket of stage blood. Instead, they cling to the walls, desperate not to be seen, and scatter like sparrows that have spotted a crow. Yet they are all waiting, primed, for an opportunity to strike, sometimes snaking up to the king, sometimes snapping like hyenas. But they’re an unruly bunch, bickering between themselves, and their in-fighting triggers a wonderfully silly set-piece as glove after glove gets thrown down and political plotting descends into a playground free-for-all.

There’s a reason Richard’s crown looks a lot like a snare. It’s a trap — a target every monarch wears on their head. Indeed, the crown contains a contradiction: the absolute power it confers is outweighed by the vulnerability it brings with it. As its wearer, Russell Beale can only wait, gloomily fatalistic, to be knocked from his perch, and when he sits on the ground to “tell tales of dead kings,” he’s not burying his head in the sand so much as facing up to his reality. He makes leadership look like a cruel form of psychological torture, where no one can be trusted and nothing seems real. Britain’s imperiled and incapacitated prime minister must know just how he feels.

It’s something Bill’s Bollingbroke discovers for himself. So steadfastly thuggish in opposition, he wilts when he gets his hands on the crown, wary even of putting it on. It adds a grim inevitability to the play’s final moments, as his loyalists call out the names of potential opponents he’s had dispatched in quick and chilling succession. Power is precarious unless it’s made absolute. “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” — as does the nation waiting on its word.

London Theater Review: 'The Tragedy of King Richard the Second'

Almeida Theatre; 325 seats; £32 ($40) top. Opened, reviewed Dec. 18, 2018. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Production: Directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins; Design, ULTZ; lighting, James Farncombe; sound, Peter Rice; dramaturgy, Jeff James.

Creative: An Almeida Theatre production of a play in one act by William Shakespeare.

Cast: Simon Russell Beale, Leo Bill, Martins Imhangbe, Natalie Klamer, John Mackay, Joseph Mydall, Saskia Reeves, Robin Weaver.

More Legit

  • Hamilton review London

    ‘Hamilton’ Helps Drive London Theater Attendance, Box Office to Record Levels

    Brits don’t just like going to the movies; they’re heading to the theater in greater numbers than before, too. “Hamilton” and other hits, particularly musicals, helped drive an uptick in box office receipts and attendance in London’s West End and across the U.K. last year, according to figures from the organizations Society of London Theatre [...]

  • Ethan Hawke

    Listen: Ethan Hawke on 'True West' and the Ghost of Philip Seymour Hoffman

    Ethan Hawke had a long relationship with Sam Shepard and his work — but he never thought he’d end up on Broadway in “True West.” That’s because Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly had already put their stamp on the show in the 2000 Broadway revival of the play. More Reviews Concert Review: Lady Gaga [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Kaye Ballard, Star of 'The Mothers-in-Law,' Dies at 93

    Singer-comedienne Kaye Ballard, who starred alongside Eve Arden in the 1960s sitcom “The Mothers-in-Law” and was among the stars of the 1976 feature based on Terrence McNally’s farce “The Ritz,” died Monday in Rancho Mirage, Calif. She was 93. She had recently attended a screening of a documentary about her life, “Kaye Ballard: The Show [...]

  • CAROL CHANNING HERSCHFELD. Actress Carol Channing

    Remembering Carol Channing: A Master of Channeling the Power of Personality

    There was only one Carol Channing, and her outsize personality was a source of delight to many fans — and imitators. Gerard Alessandrini’s stage spoof “Forbidden Broadway” had many incarnations over the years, including the 1994 edition when an audience member was selected every evening to come onstage and impersonate Carol Channing with the cast. [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda Among Celebrities Remembering Carol Channing

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Bernadette Peters are among the slew of celebrities taking to Twitter to pay tribute to late singer, comedienne and actress Carol Channing. Known for her starring roles in Broadway’s “Hello Dolly!” and “Gentleman Prefer Blondes,” the legend of the stage and screen died Tuesday at her home in Rancho Mirage, [...]

  • What the Constitution Means to Me

    Listen: How Things Got Scary in 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

    For a decade, writer-performer Heidi Schreck had wanted to write a play inspired by her experiences as a teen debater. But over the years the show started to develop into something both urgently political and deeply personal — and things got scary. In the Broadway-bound “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Schreck reimagines her speech-and-debate [...]

  • Carol Channing Dead

    Carol Channing, Star of Broadway's 'Hello, Dolly!' and 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' Dies at 97

    Larger-than-life musical stage personality Carol Channing, who immortalized the characters of Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello, Dolly!,” has died. She was 97. Channing died Tuesday of natural causes at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. More Reviews Concert Review: Lady Gaga Outdoes Her Other Vegas Show With Masterful [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content