First night: Richard II, Donmar Warehouse, London

Artistic director's finale will be remembered for a thrilling lead role

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The Independent Culture

Eddie Redmayne's brilliant Richard is already installed on his throne as the audience take their seats for this marvellous farewell production by the Donmar's departing artistic director, Michael Grandage. The air is laden with incense. The amber glow of candlelight picks out the vestiges of gilding on Richard Kent's wooden Gothic chamber of a set, their sparseness emblematic of an England fallen into neglect because of this monarch's spendthrift ways.

Resplendent in his ivory coat and crown, and cradling a sceptre, Richard gazes downwards wrapped in (and rapt by) the mystique of majesty. Redmayne must have to hold this pose, perfectly still, for half an hour. It's a telling visual preamble because it cues you into both the intense self-absorption and the strain imposed by being the Lord's anointed. Then flatterers file in and genuflect before this living icon. The king rises and immediately the dissonance between the royal persona and the pettish, flighty human person begins to sound.

Redmayne is, to my mind, the best Richard since Sam West took on the role in Steven Pimlott's radically updated version at the RSC. I see from my notes that I scribbled down "too posh to rule", by which I mean that he portrays Richard as upper-class damaged goods, with the slightly trapped, strangulated tones and underlying insecurity of someone whose background is both a crutch and a straitjacket. The fluttered lashes, the sudden dazzling smiles, and the look-at-me jokey insolence seem to be part of nervous, consciously constructed charisma. It's as though, deep down, this Richard has already seen through the charade and knows that he can't rely on Divine Right.

And so, when he is usurped by Bolingbroke (played as a deceptively plain-dealing, but canny operator by Andrew Buchan), Redmayne upstages him in the deposition scene with a thrilling mix of subversive wit (roughly manhandling him on to the throne in a mock-coronation) and revealing agony as he holds the snatched-back crown to his face so that it looks, glaringly, like a great hollow nought. There are piercing touches in this production where the human cost of kingship is brought home. Redmayne places a desperate emphasis to the final phrase in the lines, "I live with bread like you, feel want,/ Taste grief, need friends", and in the prison scene, he sings, beautifully, in unison with the music being played outside. For a few haunting moments of illusory freedom, the poetic soul of the man is at one with the world.

What a terrific way for Grandage to end 10 years of superlative stewardship at the Donmar.