‘What would you have me do? I am a subject/ And I challenge law’
I’ll come clean: I was late and had come from the pub. My friend was repeatedly asking who was the goodie and who was the baddie, and I had dropped my last non-coloured pencil into the abyss of the Keble O’Reilly’s tiered seating. Time was not on my side, my grasp of moral identity was being unrelentingly questioned, I had lost what I had relied on. Perhaps not the ideal situation to take in a bit of culture, but luckily the following production was a bit more successful.
The stage is set in black, white and red, in keeping with the play’s ideas of sun, night, and blood. Stained glass windows flank the central stage entrance, and the space is used in an effectively claustrophobic manner. In this way some of the problems of staging this play, with its demands for many varying and transient settings, are skirted by keeping the action in a constricted and shadowy area, hemmed in by the audience. At times the blocking feels clustered and the spacing inappropriately unyielding but at others, notably in the tantalizingly conspiratorial pace of Ross (Laura O’Driscoll), Willoughby (Sophie Badman) and Northumberland’s (Adam Goodbody) scene in act II, this tightness and inaccessibility becomes suddenly explosive. Though minimal, the production’s props are effective, the most memorable being the grim weight of the severed heads in the final scene, the wretched irony of the king’s purple ‘coffin’, and Richard’s mirror (it did look a bit like a pancake, but it was deployed with aplomb).
This insulation of distress was offset extravagantly by the loud gesticulations and wild vocal tenor of Yash Saraf as the titular Richard. His affected and hyperbolic manner makes Richard a shifty-eyed and crassly comic figure, whose high-pitched and abrupt delivery makes him easily vanquished aurally, as well as physically. York (Fred Wienand) is a man happy to assert himself, and his ballsy bright cape is particularly useful in developing poor Richard as the overshadowed king. However as I always say, there is more to a man than his coat; and York commands the small space into his dominion, successfully ‘making a body of a limb’, and seeming to extend the spatial sequestration by his own ambitious physicality. He varied the volume of his voice well, which was good to see amid some inclination on the parts of several characters to throw away lines during an exit, which I find sad for the character as well as for landfill.
This production improves into the second half, as the pace increases and there is more variation in the way the actors use their bodies. The Duchess of York’s (Sophie Badman) pleading scene sees her and Aumerle (Felix Grainger) move on their knees for the duration, which was a particularly clever direction. Ieuan Perkins (John of Gaunt/Bishop of Carlisle) continues to showcase his talent for delivering a good speech, following a tragically lucid sceptered isle speech in Act 2. I had concerns about the character doubling (or even quadrupling in the case of Michael Jacobs, who is impressively versatile and energetic) and it does sometimes confuse rather than enhance, but it was fine, and in particular the doubling of Henry Percy and Thomas Mowbray is interesting and performed well by Tom Critchley.
We need to talk more about Yash Saraf: he really is a brilliant casting. This is a very funny rendering of the play, and his Richard discomfortingly pulls together the pathetic, funny, despondent, annoying and compelling aspects of the character. He appears a silly man, and the words ‘still my griefs are mine. /You may my glories and my state despose,/ But not my griefs. Still I am king of those’ are the heartrending words of a hollowed man to a confusedly sympathetic audience, delivered by an excellent actor. I had my share of griefs as I looked for something a little more imaginative from it, but my conviction that it was profoundly alright was softened in the second half, making this a production I would recommend as something to find a friend and go to.
Buy tickets for Richard II here.