The spectacular setting of Ludlow Castle should be an ideal ambience, given the play's emphasis on ceremony and ritual – from the tournament scene in the lists at Coventry to Richard's elaborate abdication. But while the ruined Castle makes a vivid backdrop to the proceedings, Steven Berkoff's production serves up the same old tired tricks of direction to which he has treated us many times before.
Paradoxically, even the brilliant scene where Richard descends "like glist'ring Phaeton" from the walls of Flint Castle to parley in the "base court" with the usurper Bolingbroke loses a great deal of its charge. The walls of Ludlow Castle are too high to be used as scenery, so Richard and the opposition are both onstage at the same level throughout. The striking visual symbolism of the episode has therefore to be conveyed with intense upward glances from Bolingbroke and company, and by the monarch's mime of gingerly descending down a notional staircase.
Berkoff has set the play in the era of Oscar Wilde. Often moving in soupy slo-mo, the court is an assembly of toffs in top hats and morning dress, their white-gloved hands wielding black canes. An effete aristo who looks as if he finds decadence a bit of a chore, Timothy Walker's Richard presides over a posse of fawning parasites who freeze-frame in postures of screaming disingenuousness. As a way of conveying the irresponsibility of the king's reign, this is certainly graphic. The trouble, though, is that the same stylised overkill is applied across the board. The production too often leaps from one frozen, ridiculously exaggerated group-reaction shot to another. In a play that relies on contrasts, almost everything about this staging is compromised by camp. It's hard to take Bolingbroke and gang seriously when you have to watch them canter about on invisible horses. And instead of evoking pity, Julia Tarnoky's agonised Queen Isabel leaves you thinking wistfully of straitjackets.
Michael Cronin emerges with honour as a fiercely eloquent Gaunt. But too often the rigidity of the production concept distracts from the play's emotional content. As Bolingbroke, Joseph Millson, who was excellent in the RSC's Spanish Golden Age season, comes across as a pained, manly blank rather than a cagey operator. If Walker fails to touch the heart as he graduates from flouncing, affected big-head to humbled human being, it's partly because he's in a production that values the artificial over direct, unadorned feeling.
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