The girl who would be king

Rhoda Koenig dismisses Fiona Shaw's Richard II - a real king could never be 'such a giggling prat'
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The Independent Culture
The casting of Fiona Shaw as Richard II is not so much a triumph for feminism as one might think. When Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet, she was criticised by some reviewers for being too bold - a style that arose from her intelligent interpretation of the prince as a character undone by rashness rather than vacillations. Shaw's Richard, however, is a stereotypical girlie. Though crowned at 10, Richard was 30 during the events chronicled by the play, and unlikely to be such a giggling prat. After making a greeting- card sentiment out of "This we prescribe, though no physician; / Deep malice makes too deep incision" her Richard rocks back on his heels, smirking at his own cleverness. In a clownish accent, he announces an invasion with "We will for Oireland!". And when the king, speaking of his celestial radiance, says that "murders, treasons, and detested sins, / The cloak of night being pluck'd from off their backs, / Stand bare and naked, trembling at themselves," Shaw illustrates "trembling" with a Hawaiian dance. This playfulness not only makes Shaw unconvincing as an anointed king of England - she'd have to be more authoritative to make a believable queen of St Trinians.

The rest of Deborah Warner's production is considerably more grown up and impressive. Though Shaw's costume is a bit too suggestive of a Comme des Garcons outfit, and the set of an expensive minimalist restaurant, on the whole Hildegard Bechtler's design is a model of chaste elegance. The long, narrow stage forms the lists for a series of rhetorical and physical combats, ending with the murder of the captive Richard, who runs wildly to the end of the rope that tethers him before being struck down.

Looking like a Holbein nobleman, Graham Crowden, as John of Gaunt, personifies the grandeur of a dying England, the "scept'red-isle" speech breathing all the regret and tenderness of a dying man. His scene with the Duchess of Gloucester is another picturesque and piercing moment, Paola Dionisotti's shrivelled monkey of a duchess tottering on two sticks with a vindictiveness great as her grief.

And, in this play about the triumph of a new order, Michael Bryant ironically turns in the other weighty performance, as the Duke of York - his "uncle me no uncle" has, in four words, more authority than all of David Threlfall's delicate portrayal of the usurper Bolingbroke.

Though Richard II was an ineffectual king, he was a king, and was a man. If an actress can project masculinity (and some are more capable of doing so than some actors) there is nothing against her taking up the sceptre and orb. Judging by this outing, though, Shaw doesn't have enough maleness to play Peter Pan.

n 'Richard II' is at the Cottesloe, Royal National Theatre, London SE1 (Box-office: 0171-928 2252)