Review: Richard II, Jack Studio Theatre

We Are Animate offers Shakespeare with a reinvigorating point of view with this fresh look at Richard II, playing at the lovely Jack Studio Theatre now

“Remember who you are?”

You can see why many a theatre company turns to Shakespeare, especially after a period of such economic turbulence for the industry, but going for a safe pair of hands doesn’t always result in the greatest level of artistic excitement. Fortunately, We Are Animate are perhaps fully aware of this and so their production of Richard II arrives at Jack Studio (ever the friendliest of venues) with real points of interest (and Robyn on the soundrack).

A majority female ensemble, a running time slimmed down to 80 minutes and inventive Daily Mail-aping castsheets that leave us in no doubt as to where the inspiration for choosing this play about power-hungry elites and feckless, flailing rulers came from. The result is a crafty and considered approach to the play that crucially, has something to say to us now, not least in how those elites treat the people they rule.

Richard is played by Michael Rivers with a neat casual arrogance so easily irritated and contrasted against the calm proficiency of Fleur De Wit’s Bolingbroke, there’s a fascinating look at gendered expectations in the behaviour of our leaders. Is what is considered (by some) masculine and strong always a good thing (qv riding shirtless on a horse, producing an unconfirmed number of children…). How many instances of disrespect and disregard (qv just any one of those parties held by the Tories in lockdown) does it take until we’ve had enough and actually do something about it.

Following Joe Hill-Gibbins’ reworking for the Almeida and Adjoa Andoh and Lynette Linton’s stunning women-of-colour production for the Globe, director Lewis Brown follows in some storied footsteps and in many ways, matches up really well. His stylish and stylised production is visually bracing – movement sequences are deployed effectively, a hanging scene is somehow astonishingly elegant and the design choices are fully on point (oh, that I could ever look that good in a red suit!).

The modern setting is worn lightly, with contemporary reference points gently influencing rather than guiding this interpretation. And performances impress across the board. Rivers gets all of Richard’s uncomprehending capriciousness, De Wit proves devoutly commanding and I really enjoyed Harriet Barrow’s work as the conflicted Aumerle. There may be higher profile Shakespeare productions opening soon in London but this is by far the superior.

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Photos: We Are Animate
Richard II is booking at the Jack Studio Theatre until 5th March

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