“Richard II”, Guildford Shakespeare Company

Jeremy Malies in Surrey
10 February 2023


“There’s no way back / Move right outta here baby!” Perhaps Liz Truss should have studied the lyrics of “Moving On Up” by M People before strutting out to it at a Conservative Party Conference? Musical director Alex Beetschen sets the tone skilfully here as he and the creative team draw parallels between the slew of backstabbing Tory grandees inflicted on us recently and the stratagems of monarchs and usurpers in late fourteenth-century England.


The company. Photo credit: Mark Dean.


And how refreshing this whole endeavour is: a concept production that retains its logic throughout with director Natasha Rickman skewering ministers and spin doctors alike as she moves the place of Richard’s imprisonment and death from Pomfret Castle further up the M1 by 70 miles to Barnard Castle which has been made infamous by Dominic Cummings’ drive-by during Covid restrictions.

Rickman opts to sit most of the audience (though not press) in a cabaret-style configuration, and the cast are close to us for many of the crucial scenes. She always uses evidence from the text for her decisions. Laura Matthews as Henri Bolingbroke (the future Henri/Henry IV) and Norfolk (Eddy Payne) confront each other a few feet from me in a Russian roulette-style drinking duel in which they down shots of vodka from a tray while knowing that one of the glasses contains bleach. It’s a welcome change from all the heraldry and gauntlet-throwing in the original and of course a reference to Partygate and the details (still emerging) of woeful behaviour on the eve of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral. Rickman consolidates this by placing a coffin on stage containing Gloucester, and it helps that many scenes in the play as written are set in Westminster Hall so allowing the director to draw references to recent political events.

Giddy interns retrieve booze from filing cabinets, shred incriminating memos and rush around the corridors of power plotting their own future assault on the greasy pole to a ministerial position. As numerous expenses scandals are still being exposed in the wake of the whopping saga of Boris Johnson’s flat renovation (“Wallpapergate”), it’s amusing to see Rickman’s quick wits toying with the fact that the initial fulcrum of the plot here involves Henri accusing Mowbray of squandering state funds.

Lighting designer Mark Dymock shows flair and imagination. He floods the apse and exedra of Holy Trinity, a huge late-Georgian church, with a carmine glow while the resigned Richard (Daniel Burke) gives the “Hollow crown” speech. Camera flashes pop as paparazzi descend on Barnard Castle.

Burke is wonderful in this section; he is forensic in analyzing the collapse of his character’s ego having projected a tangible majesty earlier coupled with lithe physicality and some sexual ambiguity. (We see hints of a relationship with his cousin Aumerle played by Luke Latchman.) But once imprisoned there is prompt self-abasement and clarity in how Richard views his defeat and mortality. By now Burke is wearing a toy crown while plastic trumpets are being blown at him ironically. And a rarity for Shakespeare, there are many scriptural allusions here. A monarch who (even more than some of his predecessors) had cited the divine right of kings has been annihilated.

Burke gives the impression of going through a true arc of experience in all his major speeches and soliloquies, and I should like to see his Hamlet though that boat has sailed for a few years at least with this company. As Richard speaks of the kings who have been deposed or slain in war, you have to think that Rickman is referencing Tory hatchet jobs. There is also the detail that if the Conservatives can choose a leader without a formal contest, then they and political commentators speak of a “coronation”.

The unmannered verse-speaking is excellent all round (voice coach Sterre Maier deserves plaudits) and the acoustic in the church seemed more forgiving than usual. Several genders are switched; Anna Kavanagh is Joan of Gaunt and the usurper is Henri played by Laura Matthews. I suspect a few pronouns will have been changed where this could be done without compromising the metre but the whole plot was so engrossing and coherent on its own terms that I didn’t really notice. The company move and dance together as a group in a credible way suggesting that they really have been university or public school contemporaries. This is the deft work of choreographer Sundeep Saini who ensures they coalesce as a unit even if a dysfunctional one with constant feuding and betrayals.

Matthews comes across as a chilling psychopath as she files her nails just as the human chameleon that is joint company founder Matt Pinches (here being Bushy as one of the five roles he played) is being taken off to be executed after some fingernail-pulling with a monkey wrench that would have had Mad Frankie Fraser in paroxysms of glee. I’ve seen a good deal of Pinches including principal roles but would say that his handling of the Bishop of Carlisle’s prophecy of civil war with “The blood of English shall manure the ground …” is his finest hour for intensity and absorption into the character. And how logical that, as a gardener, the same actor should speak moments later of how he sees a lawn in Langley as a microcosm of a weed-infested country lacking the order that he can bring to his immediate surroundings with some judicious pruning.

This is imaginative found-space theatre in which Rickman can control the whole environment and increase the immediacy. Having a coffin upfront central in the nave of a church is sensible and I was so close it was tempting to peep inside. Beetschen’s musical direction helps the cast through a first-rate unaccompanied version of “Jerusalem” which reinforces Matthews’ promise (on which Henry IV would make good) to lead a crusade to the Holy Land.

Sweeping high-energy incidental music, occasionally smacking of Purcell, as well as what for me at least were subliminal references to William Blake, suggested that people in the creative team have been to see Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem during its recent run. As Richard lands on the Welsh coast and as Henri lands at Ravenspur, lighting and sound (Matt Eaton) combine to suggest the demi-paradise of druids and fairies that Gaunt has described on her deathbed.

“A riotous year” is the strapline on a copy of Playboy that Pinches held up in front of me. The chaos, regime changes and background of unrelenting treachery make this a play for our times. The piece has been given a radical overhaul but the seeming unwillingness of leaders to improve means that even with a contemporary setting, this play showing events from 600 years ago remains a believable narrative. It’s impressive and inventive at every level.