I have to admit Richard II has never been one of my favourite Shakespearean plays, but after this production, I’m willing to reconsider. The dark, dank (extremely cold) but atmospheric Vaults Theatre really suits Quandary Collective’s near-future dystopian adaption. Entering to what sounds like a mixture of rock music and Medieval plainchant, we have our first chance to admire the set; boxes, tyres, and assorted odds and ends, including what looked like a homemade rocket launcher! A hint of the violence to come. I particularly liked the ‘throne’ – a folding garden chair with what appeared to be a circular barbecue grill behind, giving it a halo effect.
When the cast of eight appear, they start with a dance that provides further indication of the play’s conflict and violence. In fact, the music and movement throughout is excellent, punctuating the proceedings whilst providing a welcome full stop to the ending, which I usually find a bit of a damp squib. Special mention to Fight Director Jonathan Holby for the physical, sweaty, hand-to-hand skirmishes. It was a shame that there appeared problems getting the fake blood to spill, probably because of the temperature, or lack of it! It slightly disrupted the flow, drawing attention to the props rather than the action.
Richard was apparently completely different in outlook to his warrior-like father and grandfather. Quandary Collective have interpreted this further by him actually being a woman presenting as a man, in order to hold on to power. Having this in mind it does lead to an alternative understanding of much of the text. For example, Richard’s line “For you have but mistook me all this while…”. Well, yes; Quite. There is some surprise on the part of the Lords at the big reveal, but not the shock and horror I was expecting. Attitudes towards Richard didn’t seem to change much either, although we get a glimpse of one likely outcome during the visit of Aumerle (Ashley Hodgson) when Richard is in the Tower.
The lack of female characters gives further emphasis to the ‘woman having to present as a man’ idea. Coco Maartens does a great job of portraying an immature, self-centered Richard who likes to party and is use to getting his own way. In contrast, George Alexander’s Bolinbrooke is different not only in stature but also in his calculated ruthlessness. Joseph Quartson really did sound extremely unwell playing the dying John of Gaunt. If he does that every night, I fear damage to his voice.
There is good use of humour throughout, most of it landing successfully, just the occasional miss. The energetic and enthusiastic cast use the whole theatre space, including stairs, drawing the audience in to really feel part of the action (don’t worry, there is no audience participation). Although the rear seats might be helpfully nearer the bar, I do recommend sitting near the front to get the full benefit of being so close up.
With only eight actors playing eleven parts, some of the original play’s characters have been conflated, many others left out altogether. Despite this, it still runs at nearly three hours. But honestly, it doesn’t feel that long. It is exciting, funny and the seats are comfortable. But do wrap up. Did I mention it was cold?
Produced by: Venezia Spearpoint
Adapted by: Quandary Collective
Directed by: Annie McKenzie
Fight Direction by: Jonathon Holby
Set and Costumes by: Valentine Gigadet
Music composed by: Kester Hynds
Richard II plays at The Vaults Theatre until 8 May. Further information and bookings can be found at thevaults.london/richard-ii (note we have disabled this link due to it causing conflict issues on out site.)