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A CurtainUp Review
Richard @

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world.
-- Richard II

Sam West as Richard II
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Steven Pimlott has chosen to open and close Richard II with this evocative speech about the solitary state of kingship. These are Richard's thoughts in the last act, alone in his prison, but here the new king, Bolingbroke, now Henry IV, closes the play, after the death of Richard, with the very same thoughts. So we can see the inheritance of "the hollow crown" in this, the first of Shakespeare's eight English history plays which the Royal Shakespeare Company are presenting in their entirety as This England, The Histories. If this production is representative of the whole, then this series will be a must see.

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.
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Steven Pimlott

Starring: Sam West, David Troughton
With: William Buckhurst, Alfred Burke, Sam Cox, Alexis Daniel, Keith Dunphy, Paul Greenwood, David Killick, Adam Levy, Paul McEwan, Christopher Saul, Tim Treloar, Dickon Tyrrell, Catherine Walker, Janet Whiteside, William Whymper
Design: Sue Wilmington
Environment designed by David Fielding
Lighting Design: Simon Kemp
Sound Design: Andrea J Cox
Music: Jason Carr
Running time: Three hours 25 minutes
Box Office: 020 7638 8891
Booking to 10th April 2001
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 22nd January 2001 performances from the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Pit, The Barbican Centre, Silk Street London EC2

©Copyright 2001, Elyse Sommer.
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