The plot of Richard II is, at one level, very simple: it’s a play in which one king is deposed and another takes his place. Succession was an Elizabethan obsession and many of Shakespeare’s plays, historical and tragic, examine political, moral, social and psychological aspects of the transition of monarchical power. After James I was crowned in 1603, interest in plays on this theme disappeared almost immediately.
Emma Smith, in her excellent book ‘This is Shakespeare’, poses a deceptively simple question in the chapter on Richard II: was it right for Bolingbroke to take the crown from Richard? This question is at the core of the play and in Matt Swan’s intimate production at Shakespeare House, it is explored thoughtfully in two strong central performances by James Dean as the deposed Richard and Richard Davy as Bolingbroke, the usurping king who becomes Henry IV.
Shakespeare’s play never answers this critical question. Instead, hugely controversial at the time it was first performed in 1595, we witness a series of events which lead to Richard’s deposition and murder: whether it was ‘right’ (politically, morally and ethically) remains ambiguous.
In a play which has the potential to confuse audiences with a complex plot, what is not ambiguous is that Richard II contains some of Shakespeare’s most sublime poetry. One of only two plays written entirely in verse (the other is King John) this is handled well in this production, as you would expect from a theatre company specialising in Shakespeare. An understanding of the poetry emerges in the delivery across the cast.
James Dean captures the vulnerability and crumbling confidence of the ‘plume-plucked’ king as the play progresses. His is a neurotic Richard, full of insecurity and ill at ease with the responsibilities of kingship. There’s tender chemistry between him and his queen, lovingly played by Abbie Evans.
Richard Davy brings a calm gravitas to the role of the Duke of Hereford, delivering an intelligent and natural performance of a man not driven by ambition but a desire to claim his rightful inheritance. This is no brash Bolingbroke: he emerges as a morally righteous figure.
Doubling as John of Gaunt and the Bishop of Carlisle, Jenny Earl has a command of Shakespeare’s poetry which is both powerful and moving. Her evocation of England as a ‘blessed plot’ in the famous ‘sceptred isle’ speech is beautifully delivered. As Gaunt’s younger brother, the Duke of York, Niki Caister conveys a fierce conviction to protect the crown, prioritising this over any familial duty towards his son, Aumerle (an assured and promising performance by company newcomer Brogan Piggott).
Another newcomer to Derby Shakespeare, and the stage, is Craig Campbell. His debut performance, doubling as Mowbray and Northumberland, displays an understanding of the text and a natural affinity with Shakespeare’s poetry.
Strong performances across the supporting cast include Mo Pickering-Symes doubling as a persuasive Duchess of York and a wise yokel, Christine Smith as a distraught Duchess of Gloucester and James Brereton in a brief moment of comic relief as an aggrieved attendant sweeping the stage.
Whilst Richard II never provides easy answers to ethical questions around succession, it is a pleasure to explore the ambiguities of this great play. It is a work of poetic genius. This impressive directorial debut will hopefully see the return of more Shakespeare plays from this excellent amateur company.
Richard II played at Shakespeare House from 5th to 7th December 2019.
Details of future productions can be found on the Derby Shakespeare Theatre Company website.