April 21, 2000: Shakespeare, King Richard II

Gainsborough Film Studios (where the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock is said still to walk)

Almeida has refurbished the abandoned shell of the Gainsborough, itself a refurbishing of an abandoned gasworks, entirely for this production of Richard II and, added in May, Coriolanus, with both title roles acted by Ralph Fiennes. An enormous attraction because of the world-class film star, who got his start as a theatre actor and who, it turns out, can act magnificently well. The stage is a vast expanse of grassy plot, raked, with the brick and stone walls of the original gas house behind, but with a gaping, jagged fissure like a lightning bolt rising the full height of the wall (perhaps fifty feet or more), as if sculpted by jackhammer. The upper level from which Richard “must” descend is twenty-five feet up, an immense height by normal stage standards. Lights are mounted at either side of the stage (perhaps 100 feet wide) at a low angle, powerful lights with a long throw that created stark shadows and strong chiaroscuro effects. Stunning. And all except Richard and his Queen were in black, functional and the opposite of ornate, while the monarch and queen were in white with gold trim — until Richard, in the deposition scene and later in prison, is relegated to black also. A stroke of genius, to cover the entire stage with turf; the only exception, a small ellipse picked out by removing turf and leaving dirt, for the gardeners’ scene.

The production had a strong, vital forward movement; the staging was unashamedly formal, especially early on, and it matched the tone of the heavily end-stopped rhyming verse. Despite the cavernous reaches of the old studio, the dialogue was audible and clear (some deft miking had been done, unobtrusively for the most part).

Some wonderful writing here, including Fiennes, who offers us an initially fey, supercilious, pleasure-loving, heedless king who gains in humanity as he loses power — in short, a fairly faithful reading of the text. Great pace, great control of tone. A powerful John of Gaunt (David Burke), an initially unassuming Bolingbroke (Linus Roach, billed opposite Fiennes), who remains a man of few words and testy temper (“I thought thou hadst been willing to resign”) but who grows in stature as the play progresses; though he too is evidently in the grip of an irresistible historical force. Very clear, efficient direction by Jonathan Kent. Not to have been missed, both for the production itself and the unique ambience of the old gasworks, which after five months will be demolished and replaced by some development or other. Such is the breath of capitalists.



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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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