Second opinion / Paul Taylor defends Fiona Shaw's Richard II from the baying critics

"Deborah Warner's production [of Richard II] at the National's Cottesloe Theatre succeeds in surviving, often brilliantly, a disastrous performance in the main role." At varying levels of intensity, this "nice production, shame about the Richard" line (the above quote comes from the Sunday Telegraph) crops up repeatedly in the reviews. I was on holiday when the piece opened, and only caught up with it last Saturday. The experience left me feeling that the invidiousness rampant in the critical reaction was well-nigh illogical. Fiona Shaw's dazzlingly discomforting impersonation of Richard is so integral to the thinking behind Deborah Warner's gripping, lucidly felt production that it would only make sense to like neither or both.

Indeed, what is so impressive about this staging is its imaginative unity, its acute realisation that the play deals with painful in-between states, grey areas of identity (affecting the King and Bolingbroke) and of morality (as in the strains put on the allegiance of the nobility by Richard's irresponsible rule). It's odd, for example, that some critics have assumed that the production is aiming to be gender-blind when the slightly unearthly, ambiguous figure Shaw cuts - in her portrayal of the monarch as an anguishedly insecure, clowningly exhibitionist man-child - mirrors more than subliminally the psychological confusions caused by the identity crisis of a King's dual nature: the anointed, mystique-ridden role having to be filled by the all-too-fallible human being.

Hildegarde Bechtler's set - a beautiful long, narrow, wood and gold traverse stage which bifurcates the Cottesloe with the audience sitting on either side in what could be cathedral stalls or jury boxes - has been rightly praised for the way it heightens a sense of the play's formal patterning and imparts a vivid, sport-like urgency to the aborted tournament at Coventry. What it also eerily evokes, though, is a corridor, a no-man's-land (bounded by an eavesdropping audience): this is a resonantly apt location for a play where people are endemically betwixt and between states of mind, allegiance and being.

In a celebrated staging in the mid-Seventies, John Barton mounted a production of Richard II which highlighted the strong spiritual affinities between the King and his usurper by alternating the roles between Richard Pasco and Ian Richardson. Warner achieves something of the same sort by casting opposite Shaw a fine actor, David Threlfall, who could be her platonic double. The near-twinship, as well as kinship, and the haunted mutual fascination, brings out the way these characters inversely reflect each other, both the placings of a curiously under-willed fate, like figures on escalators moving in opposite directions. From Fiona Shaw's deliberately uncomfortable, continuously compelling performance, all these ideas radiate and derive their validity. The masterly production lives up to her: it has no need (pace the reviews) to live her down.

n 'Richard II' continues at the Cottesloe Theatre (0171-928 2252)

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