Richard II, Old Vic, London

A king with a PM's problems

Michael Coveney
Wednesday 17 July 2013 22:54

The point being that the divine right of kings means nothing if your number's up with the voters. This play received 40 performances when first produced - a huge amount in those days - and Queen Elizabeth I (who gave us that statistic) knew that her Bard was tackling a serious problem, i.e. the problem of government when embodied in a single person.

The deliberately patterned speech of Richard II (one of the few Shakespeare plays Trevor Nunn has never directed before), much of it in sonnet form, has conned us into thinking that the verse should be declaimed by a romantic saint in the Gielgud tradition. From David Warner to Ian McKellen, Jeremy Irons and Samuel West this has always been the case, though West was refreshingly priggish.

Spacey shows us a decisive professional in the banishment of Bolingbroke, his nemesis, and a man who simply cannot believe the evidence of his own rejection. Nunn's production, in modern dress, shows video footage of black Daimler processions, crowds of protesters and endless repeats of John of Gaunt's "sceptr'd isle" speech. The national mood changes around Richard in favour of Bolingbroke, the returning hero, the Gordon Brown to a nation's Tony Blair.

Nunn has always had the knack of making the most difficult plays seem easy in modern dress. He once made Timon of Athens look like a David Hare play. The trick works brilliantly here, with the lords assembled in ermine robes in wooden pews in a rough likeness of the House of Lords and the political realities then enacted in modern suits.

Last night was further enlivened by an electricity surge resulting from an area-wide power failure that gave the impression of instant Brechtianism, with working lights and follow spots making up the design shortfall. The elegant stage manager in a beige suit and clipboard who spoke to us either side of the interval was a perfect example of the New Labour (feminine) pragmatism at the court of King Richard.

Spacey's Richard exchanges his large kingdom for a little grave in a burst of anger. Unlike the greatest RSC productions - and the best ever was John Barton's with Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco alternating in the lead roles - Nunn and Spacey give short shrift to the emblematic imagery of the sun and the see-saw pageantry.

Instead, we have a continuous mobility of action with wonderful set pieces, notably when the York family uncover their son's treachery in a plush apartment, a stark reading of the garden scene where a French-sounding queen encounters the poetic workers, and a riveting prison finale at Pomfret, with Spacey leaping on a radiator to proclaim that while he has wasted time, now Time wastes him. You don't really get the connection to a man's soul, but the play works somehow inversely as a political icon searching for an escape through self-expression.

Nunn's production, cleverly designed by Hildegard Bechtler, contains some outstanding support performances from Ben Miles as Bolingbroke, a smiling, devious Spacey alternative; Julian Glover as John of Gaunt, going seriously off message halfway through his great speech; Oliver Cotton as a painfully appeasing Earl of Northumberland; and, especially, Peter Eyre as the turncoat Duke of York, the constant reminder of political survival in an ugly world and a man who suggests hypocrisy and decency at once.

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