Richard II


Mesmerised by king who loses his script.

It takes an actor of Alan Howard's intellectual power and dramatic subtlety to demonstrate fully how closely kingship and the actor's trade are related in Shakespeare's view. Especially here where the king can only function as long as he is supported by the trappings of his role.

In Terry Hands's brilliantly precise Royal Shakespeare Company production, Mr Howard's special talent fairly blazes new lights from the text.

His Richard is first shown set like a golden jewel at the centre of a stiff, formal medieval tableau. Order is everywhere and everything, and Mr Howard almost sleepwalks through the rituals he royally performs, so assured is this king of his ability to play the part God cast him in.

But behind the actor's mask there darts a keen and human intellect.

For instance, when he has grabbed Bolingbroke's birthright he acknowledges the enormity of the deed by casually cupping his hand to his ear waiting for the inevitable tirade from his uncle. It comes, and he smiles knowingly as if he had conjured the reaction from thin air.

reflections of a king

It is, however, when the king is stripped of his props and plundered of his royal role that Howard's grasp on the text totally mesmerises, surprises and delights.

He attacks familiar lines like a panicked performer whose script has been given to someone else - as indeed Richard's has.

Moods flash across his countenance at the drop of a single word. Few actors can alter the temperature of the moment so swiftly as this man. He shows us that Richard's grasp on affairs is always at least two steps ahead of the events cousin Henry thrusts upon him.

The evening, however, is by no means a one-man event. David Suchet's Henry begins with a blunt belligerance and ends up already weighed down by the cares of his stolen regalia.

The gilded order which met our eye at the outset has long disintegrated. This is history touched with the inevitability of high tragedy, and all are to be congratulated.

Jack Tinker

Daily Mail, 11.11.81.

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Playing Shakespeare/Richard II