Pros: Nick Finegan as King Richard II is stupendous.
Cons: Three hours of sitting on pews takes it toll but the majestic venue is worth it.
Richard II is the third instalment of the Malachites Theatre Company’s admirable effort to reunite the Borough and the Bard by staging the Shoreditch 19. These were Shakespeare’s early works that premiered in the local area over 400 years ago. I have to say right off the bat that I was astounded at the level of this production considering the cheap price of the tickets. I certainly needn’t have fretted about sacrificing a sunny evening. The incense-filled interior of St Leonard’s Church was mired with the fog of a lost but beckoning medieval world. I was readily eager for what turned out to be a fantastic production by a very talented cast and creative team.
Richard II chronicles the downfall of the politically inept King Richard II and the rise of Henry Bolingbroke to become Henry IV. Despite being Shakespeare’s most lyrical play, it contains lots of formality and ceremony, making the choice of the majestic but crumbling St Leonard’s an inspired one. The pomp and rhetoric was most felt in the tense abdication scene, where Richard makes a show of handing over his crown and sceptre. There is a striking symmetry in the staging that matches not the Kings’ exchanging of places but indeed that of any regime change. Almost every area of the church (the aisle, balcony and the back and sides), is utilised for the plethora of geographical locations in the play. Director Benjamin Blyth does his best to minimise the unnecessary historical baggage in favour of focusing on the story of a power shift and the identity crisis of a King who is no longer king.
I was completely engrossed in Nick Finegan’s portrayal of King Richard II as less of a spoilt child and more of a sacrificial victim of his own self-indulgence. For his prison cell scene, the church lights go off and we are in splendid darkness but for five candle lights that illuminate the ex-King and his bizarre reflections on his unique loneliness. Finegan handles the lyrical verse effortlessly and I was surprised to feel moved by his suffering and loss of self-definition. Special mention must go to John McEnery as the dying Gaunt, whose urgent rebuke of the King’s unbridled mismanagement haunts the remainder of the play. Terry Jermyn as the Bishop of Carlisle gives a hair-raising and alarmist speech on the divisions that will arise for future generations as a result of the challenge to the King’s divine status. It’s hair-raising because we know what the characters don’t, that Carlisle is prophesying the War of the Roses. The play’s end scene of a conscious-stricken King Henry IV, also has the same engrossing effect.
The grumbles I have with this production are more to do with the play than the performance. With no sex, very little humour and this production’s rightful de-emphasis on the history, you are left with characters whose motives and outlooks are on the whole poorly defined, at least in comparison to many of Shakespeare’s better-known plays. Also the play is full length, coming in at a full 3 hours, including a short interval.
Still, there is so much attention to detail that makes this production worth seeing. The beautiful live music and singing that plays between scenes really charges the atmosphere, as do the period costumes. Most of all, it’s the careful attention given to lyrical language that makes this production special. I would recommend knowing something of the background to the play before you go. The accompanying programme does offer a ‘the story so far’ section that is worth reading.
Author: William Shakespeare
Director: Benjamin Blyth
Producer: The Malachites
Booking Until: 26 July 2014
Booking Link: http://www.seetickets.com/tour/richard-ii