Review: Richard II

Bronzehead Theatre cultivate a witty version of Richard II in an illuminating setting, to ‘s delight

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Image: Michael J. Oakes

★★★★☆

Venue: Stained Glass Centre

The Bronzehead Theatre’s Richard II was a treat, and lots of fun – though dark and compelling in subject matter. Settled in the beautiful surrounds of the Stained Glass Centre on Micklegate, the insides of the church were decorated with turf and placards, giving the church the feel of the outside venues which will characterise the rest of the company tour. The venue itself was stunning: a church dating back to before the 11th century with the light from the stained glass surrounding us and providing us with an almost eerie glow emanating from our immediate environment. The setting seemed even more fitting when taking into account that one of Shakespeare’s history plays would be performed in this Grade 1 listed building in York.

Richard II can be a little bit of a tricky play, especially as it has little room for lightness in its plot: it deals with the deposition of an inept monarch and the problems that lie within and yet, despite such a challenging script, the cast performed admirably. The production took the ‘Garden of England’ metaphor to the extreme: costumes were evocative of English Summertime, from Richard’s linen to Bolingbroke’s more simple gardener’s outfit. Duels were performed with spades and corpses were taken from the stage with wheelbarrows. The performance was so serious that it gave a seriousness and threat not otherwise normally associated with one’s garden tools. The physicality of the cast allowed them to become exactly what they needed to be: Amy Milns’ Bolingbroke was a man torn between his duty and his country, with emotion evoked by her expression and posture towards other characters, providing a wonderful antithesis to Mark Burghagen’s haughty and aloof Richard.

This was a performance with a small cast, so most of the cast took on several roles. This was quite difficult to keep track of at times, with the scene changes happening rapidly and there being minimal costume changes for the majority of the cast – John of Gaunt was characterised with a stick and hat, for instance, and when removed Mick Liversidge effortlessly straightened and became the brash and aggressive Northumberland. There were points where it was a little difficult to keep track of at first, but this was usually only in the initial parts of the scenes. A particular stand-out was Geraldine Bell, whose fiery and aggressive Hotspur, cowardly and simpering Bushy, and unexpectedly hilarious Duchess of York were distinct and expertly crafted. She provided a well-needed dose of comedy when the Duchess was pleading for her son’s life, although it might have been an unusual moment to choose for it.

The cast and set interacted with the audience constantly and effectively, throwing them into the action. The set itself made use of the looks of the props and church along with the scent of the flora that surrounded it. The whole set-up seemed unique, there was grass growing beneath our feet, the audience surrounded a narrow stretch of turf upon which the actors danced and moved effortlessly, the upstage area was closed off from view with boards fashioned into something similar to a fortress, and was decorated with vines and protest signs. The timing of the evening, with the light of the day fading as the shadows increased and the production came to its rather dark ending, gave an even more sinister edge to the action. The final scene, as the darkness began to come into the church, was performed in almost complete darkness, with just a lamp and the King illuminated. It was a particularly striking moment, and an excellent use of the natural light of the evening with well thought-out timing and setting.

The production was fantastic, and perfect for a summers evening. The company have several more shows this summer, all outside, including one at Pontefract castle. It’s well worth going, as it’s a brilliant show which will have you spellbound with humour and gasping at some of its shocking parts even if it is strange to see gardening tools look so threatening!

 

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