by William Shakespeare: Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol
With Andrew Hilton’s taught direction and John Heffernan’s sensitive childlike King Richard, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s production of the tragic Richard II vividly presents the inevitable downfall of a naïve ruler.
Shakespeare’s history is a skilfully crafted story of the last days of Richard’s reign. The ill-advised decisions Richard makes in settling an argument between cousin Bolingbroke and Lord Mowbray and then ceasing the former’s Lancastrian inheritance lead to the usurpation of his crown and ultimately his death.
A divinely appointed King is reduced to a mere mortal. This is a tragedy. The King has a fatal flaw. But is the flaw his ability to make poor impetuous decisions or his ability to unwisely trust his advisors?
John Heffernan’s Richard displays a capricious personality, like a hormonal adolescent: often immature and rash, screeching either in enthusiasm or anger; a duality of sympathy or cold-heartedness. We are appalled both with Richard’s lack of grief upon the death of the his long-trusted uncle John of Gaunt and the joy he displays in ceasing his estate to fund the doomed Irish wars; we are then touched by his bewilderment and pitiable isolation after the loss of his crown.
Although awkward as a vengeful Bolingbroke, determined to take back his rightful inheritance, Matthew Thomas sensitively portrays his apprehension in usurping the English crown. Central to the tragedy and underlining the narrative is the belief, historically and in Shakespeare’s own time, in the King’s divine right to rule. No matter how tyrannical a king, is it ever right to usurp God’s representative on earth?
This is the turmoil facing the loyal Duke of York, gracefully played by Roland Oliver. He lucidly evokes York’s wrangling doubts about Bolinbroke’s illegal usurpation and the conflict about where his loyalty lays. This reaches a thrilling climax upon the discovery of his son Aumerle’s (Oliver Millingham) treasonable plot when York, knowing it would mean death for his son, chooses loyalty to the new King Henry IV.
Amongst the deft plot of double-crossing and vengeance there is humour too. For example in Heffernan’s juvenile playfulness as Richard, starkly contrasting the ideas of mature kingship, or when the duel scene builds into a preposterous wrangling of counter-accusations of treachery with every man in turn throwing down their gauntlets.
Benjamin Whitrow and Julia Hills bring aging stature to the roles of Gaunt and the Ladies of Gloucester and York. Hills is touching in dual roles of mournful yet unforgiving widow and mother desperately defending her condemned son. Whitrow carries the usual loaded expectation with Gaunt’s ‘this sceptred isle’ speech – Richard II’s ‘To be or not to be’ – but brings enough lamentation for us to forget we know how this speech should be played.
Supporting actors fit seamlessly into the action. Perhaps too inconspicuously. And this is one regretful omission. Part of Richard’s tragedy is the possible puppet-mastering of his advisors Bushy, Bagot and Greene. One is left pondering that director Hilton could have explored how much of their surreptitious power was responsible for Richard’s downfall, thus exploiting another fatefully tragic facet of Shakespeare’s play.
After twelve seasons this is SATTF’s first history play. Hilton’s production wonderfully mixes the sweeping narrative of a history with the intimacy of a single man’s tragic downfall that effectively begins the War of the Roses. Let’s hope this company adds further histories to their repertoire.