Richard II, Shakespeare's Globe, review: The journey from unfeeling monarch to frightened human being pierces the heart

Lucid and compelling production from Simon Godwin is highly recommended

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The Independent Culture

Simon Godwin’s lucid and compelling production begins with its own added prologue. The 10-year-old Richard is anointed and crowned with solemn pomp and circumstance on Paul Wills’s spectacularly gilded set, with its cross-shaped fore-stage. The Archbishop of Canterbury declares in the exact words later used by the monarch that “Not all the waters in the rough, rude sea/ Can wash the balm off from an anointed king”. In a swirl of gold confetti, the boy is replaced by the adult Richard, identically dressed in a rich ivory coat, who assumes the Gothic throne and archly tosses his own mini-shower of the celebratory stuff over himself.

Without in any way sentimentalising what follows, this opening ritual makes you appreciate more fully the damaging effects of being brought up, from childhood, to believe that your power is God-given and unassailable. It also helps to underline how, in the deposition scene, Richard upstages Bolingbroke by asserting his sole right to conduct a pointed coronation ceremony in reverse (“With mine own tears I wash away my balm”) when he hands him the crown.

Charles Edwards’s excellent Richard seems to swan around in a micro-climate of snooty entitlement. When harangued by the older generation for letting the country go to rack and ruin, he adopts the air of someone trying to keep patience with fools from another species. Don’t they know he’s allowed to do what he likes? Often cast in debonair roles, the actor portrays the king as effete but not effeminate and brings a lovely light touch to the black comedy of Richard’s blithe self-centredness. His mouth gives a little musing, aesthetic quiver as if he is considering what colour of fabric to choose, rather than the number of years to pluck away from Bolingbroke’s banishment.  David Sturzaker is a passionate, enigmatic usurper who keeps you guessing about whether Bolingbroke returns to England with a long-term strategy of seizing more than just his hereditary rights.

This is a production that is not too proud to manufacture opportunities for byplay with the groundlings. The gardener’s secateurs hover over the front line of heads (“I will go root away/The noisome weeds”) in the scene where the garden becomes a microcosm of the nation. And the comic aspects of the Aumerle conspiracy are pushed to a farcical extreme with the Yorks fighting over the Duke’s boots in what resembles some frantic rugby match and then pleading to Bolingbroke for and against their son, shuffling towards him on their knees like irritably competitive midgets.

Some may reckon that this gets out of hand. But the cast has serious strength in depth, with a brilliantly spontaneous John of Gaunt from William Gaunt (the character’s punning on his name takes on a weird new dimension in the circumstances). And, as he makes the journey from unfeeling monarch to stripped, frightened human being, Edwards’s Richard pierces the heart, analysing his condition with such un-self-pitying, courageous clarity. Recommended.

To 18 October (020 7401 9919)