“Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right”
Trekking out to Bristol’s Tobacco Factory to see Richard II may seem like pushing it even for me, but there was good reason to make the journey as playing the title role was winner of the 2010 fosterIAN Best Actor in a Play, John Heffernan. The production is by Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, a semi-repertory company now in their 12th season yet this is their first stab at one of the Histories, with The Comedy of Errors following this production.
Forming the first part of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy, it follows the decline of the egotistical Richard II’s reign, charting the tragic fall of a man from divinely-appointed King to mere mortal, contrasted with the rise to power of Bullingbrooke, later Henry IV, who capitalises on Richard’s profligacy and impetuous nature to marshal the nobility into supporting his cause and overthrowing the anointed King for the good of the nation. It is very poetic being almost all in verse and stands alone as a play, a historical tragedy for the most part, although there’s elements of lightness and a rather incongruous comedy scene towards the end and the late introduction of some supporting players who don’t really come into their own until later plays.
Whether perched on his throne dominating court, sitting in the audience watching duels or slumped against a pillar shell-shocked at defections, Heffernan showed a mastery of Shakespeare’s verse that was just an absolute pleasure to both watch and to listen to. He fully inhabited the text with a thoughtfulness which resulted in this Richard being a much more empathetic character whilst not underplaying the self-important arrogance that is his downfall. In this intimate space it was the quieter scenes that proved most outstanding though, perfectly showing the vulnerability of this monarch forced into facing mortality and the complete loss of his identity. It is the kind of performance that were it in London, it would most likely be described as star-making.
But around him, there was a strong ensemble and in particular Benjamin Whitrow’s John of Gaunt was just beautifully spoken, an excellent reading of the verse 50 years on from his first appearance in this play in Bristol and I also enjoyed Roland Oliver’s Duke of York, Oliver Millingham’s Aumerle and Julia Hills’ double-duchessing. To be honest though, the female roles in this play are pretty limited and Ffion Jolly struggled to reconcile the unobtrusive figure of Richard’s Queen with the passion she showed as he was deposed. And whilst Matthew Thomas did well as the proudly ambitious Bullingbrooke, brimming with a grim confidence yet still slightly awed at the prospect of usurping a monarch, I felt that I wanted a greater sense of charisma, of personality. (I suppose this is partly skewed due to my perception of Heffernan but I do think that there’s a tendency to sometimes overshadow Bullingbrooke with a starry RII where I think the play should be more balanced, but then it is called Richard II, not Richard and Henry so who knows!)
The Tobacco Factory’s space reminded me of the old Arcola, with its warehouse feel and the sense of wide flexibility. Staging this in the round with minimal props might have been a risky prospect given the last major Shakespeare production to strip right back and focus on the reading but Hilton has managed it beautifully here, playing up the intimacy of many scenes and importantly keeping a dynamism to proceedings, using several points of entrance and consequently the three hours plus flew by. I was also very impressed by the costumes which looked just right, satin opulence for Richard and his men, more austere wool for the others.
So whilst I am still very keen to see what Michael Grandage and Eddie Redmayne do with this play at the Donmar Warehouse at the end of the year, this was definitely worth the trip to Bristol and a pleasing indictment of Heffernan’s award-winning status, at least in these parts. I truly believe we will be talking about him in years to come so make the most of these opportunities to see him: he appears in the National’s Emperor and Galilean next and hopefully I’ll see you all there!
Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 19th March
Note: I do have to take issue with the assertion on the website that the theatre is 20 minutes walking distance from Temple Meads train station, not even my dad could make it in that time and he is the fastest walker I know!