“Such is the breath of kings”
After nearly a decade as Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, Michael Grandage is bowing out to let Josie Rourke take up the reins and his final production for this theatre is Shakespeare’s Richard II, most notably starring Eddie Redmayne. As the audience enter the auditorium, Redmayne is already poised in high state on his throne, the air heavy with incense in Richard Kent’s gilded Gothic set but we soon see how this regality is but a superficial veneer on a deeply flawed character.
This Richard is a petulant, nervy presence – a little prone to over-gesturing, acting out too many of the lines for my liking “make pale our cheek” is the example that sticks in the mind – as he is more effective in the subtle characterisations, the intensity of his eyes that nervously twitch throughout. This capriciousness is aired most perfectly in the reluctant coronation scene but as a whole but it ends up being rather one-note and missing some complexity, therefore it means that this isn’t a Richard that engenders much sympathy. Only in his final scenes, bereft of crown, sceptre and trappings of state, does he really fly and give beautiful voice to the verse.
Around him, a strong company work well but there’s little fireworks on display. Ron Cook as York, Michael Hadley’s John of Gaunt and Siân Thomas’ devastatingly well spoken Duchess bring their invaluable experience to bear with standout performances. Andrew Buchan brings an appealing ruggedness to his straightforward Bolingbroke, a complete contrast to Richard though perhaps lacking a little of the political dimension of this future king. In the rest of the youthful company though, only Ashley Zhangazha’s Aumerle made an impression, Pippa Bennett-Warner feeling rather miscast as Queen Isabel. For me, I think they fell victim a little to Grandage’s customary fast-paced approach. The breathlessly fast scene changes, particularly in the first act, simply felt too relentless for me, the production rarely took time to breathe in the headlong rush to the interval: the buttocks were grateful for the trimming down of the text though.
In many ways, this is an archetypal Donmar Warehouse production which is a fitting way to end Grandage’s tenure. But because this is a template that has been used so often, it does feel a little ‘been there done that’ and because the performances don’t quite raise the roof in the way that one might have expected, I left with a slight air of disappointment. Even something like its most visually strong image, the Act 1 closer, though beautifully done, comes out of nowhere and just doesn’t feel a natural part of proceedings really.
Another strong factor in my reaction, and it is something that I’ve struggled to deal with this year, is the inevitable comparison with other recent productions – in this case the Tobacco Factory’s John Heffernan starring one – which blew me away, especially with the performance of its leading man which will live long in my memory and ultimately, that was the kind of magic I was hoping for here.
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 4th February
Note: to allow for the entrance with Richard upon his throne, the doors are not opened until maybe 10 minutes before showtime, meaning it gets rammed inside so I wouldn’t bother rocking up early.