Here lies the end of an era – both on and off stage. Richard II as King of England and Michael Grandage as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse. After almost a decade of ne’er erring productions, Grandage gives us Shakespeare’s Richard II. The stage has the hushed and sacrosanct air of a church after benediction. The King sits in meditation on his thrown and frankincense hangs in the air like a ghost.
It is the end of the 1390s and King Richard is called on to settle the beef between Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray. Sadly, the two sadly don’t get to joust out their issues and are exiled from the kingdom – Bolingbroke for six years and Mowbray forever. Mowbray’s anguish at the prospect of starting anew at 40 years old in a foreign land makes one realise how times have changed, though people may have not.
Andrew Buchan plays the role of usurper to the throne, Henry Bolingbroke and makes for a wonderful contrast (fire and water are used throughout as metaphors for the two men)– in body and speech – to the poetic and impulsive nature of Richard, played by Eddie Redmayne. Much of the text is written in rhyming couplets and it is thanks to the seamless delivery by the whole cast that we are able to savour them.
Eddie Redmayne is already making headway as an actor. It is easy, upon first glance, to label him as another pretty face. He has a refined Mick Jagger quality of sex appeal (full lips, narrow hips) mixed with some of the androgynous beauty that makes him perfect for a Burberry campaign.
Historically, Richard II was tall and beautiful. And young. He took to the throne aged 10 and reigned until he was deposed at 32. Redmayne – an acquired taste, despite obvious talent – personifies the erratic and impulsive boy king perfectly with face twitching and bursts of manic grinning thrown in between wild tempers. His face has a fantastic range that can transform from gently beautiful to contorted at a change of mood.
Redmayne and Pippa Bennett-Warner’s, as his Queen Isabel, chemistry suggests a relationship of equality and respect. While the two enact the relationship well enough, a lot is left mysterious. Bennett-Warner’s stage presence and performance are strong enough to leave one intrigued about this French queen and what is in store for her as an actress in future.
Great things can be expected ahead for many of the young members of the cast – the strapping Harry Atwell, Stefano Braschi, Andrew Buchan (character actor in the making?), Michael Marcus (not entirely convincing as the Abbot of Westminster), Ben Turner and Ashley Zhangazha, especially. An appearance in a Grandage production is a huge leg up to getting noticed, as it was for Tom Hiddleston in the Donmar/Grandage 2009 production of Othello.
Richard Kent’s superlative gold-tinged wooden set gives the Donmar’s relatively small stage an expanse one would not think it capable of. Its decadently medieval look pairs magnificently with the costumes that are simple but some of the most beautiful I have seen in any theatre production (and anywhere, actually) and the raw silk finery looks even more wonderful underneath David Plater’s lighting. Adam Cork’s score and sound was sparing but aptly placed.
Grandage knows a thing or two about how to stage a solid production of Shakespeare. No technological feats in stage design and lighting or time travel. Just period costumes, understated scenery and music, and acting talent that lets the text do all the talking.
Come if you love and cherish Shakespeare. Come even if you hate Shakespeare but appreciate stabbing, treason and plot, a good script and pretty actors who can act.
The season ends in February, but it is with stealth and cunning that you will have to get to see it. A show as superb as this one sells out in a second.