Richard II

The last Stratford-on-Avon Richard II, based on the notion of the King and Bolingbroke as mirror images of each other, is a pretty hard act to follow. But the new Terry Hands production, secure, glittering, imagistic and even pageant-like, not only gives Alan Howard the chance to add another to his brace of kings but also firmly projects the idea that time is the real hero of this play, even if it doesn't get a programme credit.

At the start, thanks to Farrah's opulent designs, we are in a burnished copper world where the king and his lords stand out like cathedral effigies. For the lists at Coventry (and how the place has gone downhill since) we even see a tilted wooden stage lowered to reveal Richard on a golden throne with a white hart at his feet and brave banners behind. It is a world of ritual, ornament and excess, evoking Richard's "rash fierce blaze of riot." But by the end we are plunged into a society of darkness, gloom, flickering torches, and of men signing documents in small back rooms.

But this is much more than a morality play, riches to rags, Richard II. It gains its strength from the way it implies both past and future. Behind the folderol, Alan Howard's Richard is from the start a nervy monarch casting doubtful glances at Bolingbroke when he asks what would happen "were he my kingdom's heir." And David Suchet's Bolingbroke suggests a whole history of trouble ahead when, having seized the crown from Richard, he offers it to Northumberland to carry, and thinks better of it.

Richard II

Time is at the back of everything in this production gradually transforming the twin protagonists from feudal rivals into broken reeds joined together by an invisible thread of sorrow.

Admittedly, the director sometimes overplays his hand. I can see no reason why Sir Piers of Exton should turn up at Pomfret with a whole tribe of black-clad assassins other than to provide an effective image. And the over-reliance on Guy Wolfenden's music periodically suggests lurking opera. I know Welshmen are born musicians, but it seems odd for them to sing while defecting from Richard's side and also walking backwards into darkness. But it remains a first-rate production packed with behavioral detail and rooted in a governing idea.

Alan Howard's Richard also has the right star presence: peacock-proud in the early scenes, tremblingly hysteric as he sees his kingdom crumble all around him, and truly regretful when he sees his life has been full of "self and vain conceits." By the end he has also discovered a real humanity as he sits on the ground with a groom to discuss his rival's coronation. But though it is a fine performance it doesn't overshadow David Suchet's Bolingbroke, who starts as a greedy opportunist with his eyes fixed firmly on the crown and who grows into a rheumy, bespectacled, ermine-scarfed figure, filled with retrospective compassion.

Domini Blythe also gives the Queen a sexual hunger for her husband that we don't often see, and there is good support from Jonathan Hyde as a spying Rosencrantz-like Aumerle and from Bruce Purchase as a looming, power-crazed Northumberland. We have in the last decade or so had a bunch of excellent Richards and this is one more to add to the collection showing a glittering mediæval kaleidoscope turning to dust and ashes at the hands of that old arbitrator, Time.

Michael Billington.

Guardian, 4.11.80

Playing Shakespeare/Richard II