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A CurtainUp Review
The success of this play of power and politics depends on the balance of the two main characters, the protagonists, Richard II (Sam West) and Bolingbroke (David Troughton). Richard II is not a good king. Sam West plays Richard as a boy swept along by cheap popularity with his cronies, a small group of sycophantic courtiers. Richard is volatile, unpredictable and shallow but he can claim the divine right of kings, he is the lawful Plantagenet monarch. Bolingbroke, on the other hand, ponders his actions, struggles to do the right thing and in terms of qualifications, is the meritocratic candidate for the kingship.
There are those who were saying that David Troughton is too old to play Bolingbroke. I could not disagree more. Quite apart from his having the seniority to continue as Henry IV in the next two plays, David Troughton's heavy, soldierly Bolingbroke is a perfect foil to Sam West's slight and fickle youth. Several times Troughton stops and stares into the audience, as if lost in his thoughts, alone in the world. When the joust is almost fought with large axes, it is Bolingbroke who is going to be able to wield this heavy weapon effectively. Sam West's slight frame and blonde curls belie his chronological age but the range of his performance as Richard II is mesmerising and mature. It is easy to see why the Royal Shakespeare Company has chosen West to be their next Hamlet. He opens the play speaking the "prison" speech from the front row of the audience, where he has been sitting quietly and, by most, unnoticed. His delivery is intelligent and helps us grasp the verse. The switch to his character is impressive, his voice changes to become peevish and petulant. In the second half of the play he commands our sympathy. Wrapped in a cross of St George, holding a white rose and wearing a head wreath, he forces the crown on Bolingbroke's head, turns to the audience and accuses us of treachery. But it is in the confines of his cell that we realise that Richard is unable to live other than as a king, where he pulls at our emotions.
There are fine ensemble performances. Alfred Burke's John of Gaunt is very old and, from his wheelchair, rattles through the "sceptr'd isle speech" with barely a pause and with all the urgency of one about to die. Harry "Hotspur" Percy (Adam Levy) is a keen young, gun wielding commando and we look forward to more of him in the next play. Catherine Walker's Queen Isabel is touching as she has to learn from gardeners the state of the realm. Aumerle (Alexis Daniel), more than a fair weather friend, physically comforts Richard, implying a sexual relationship between the two.
In The Pits's new all white set, sometimes lit with violet, this claret, purple, black and grey, modern dressed cast, are close enough for all the audience to savour every change of expression on the faces of the cast. Bolingbroke makes us all stand, as if subjects, matching his will against those of an audience determined to stay seated. His proximity means he can catch the eye of all dissenters. I found the whiteness at times, almost too bright but the white box is growing on me. Real earth serves as Gloucester's grave and Richard's ground, a wooden crate as prison and coffin, but on the whole there are no distractions from the verse. Bells, struck organ pipes and trumpets give us the musical pomp of majesty. Pimlott's directorial reading is intelligent, almost didactic in the vein of the very best of teaching, the lessons that stay with you for a lifetime. He varies the mood so that the three and a half hours of the play never slow. A splendid start to the This England, The Histories! As the new king Henry IV talks about the shortcomings of his son, Prince Hal's companions, here is the perfect trailer for Henry IV Part One.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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