First published in The Times, Friday July 24 2015
In recent years, Bard in the Botanics, Scotland’s annual summer Shakespeare festival, has complemented its programme of full-scale outdoor productions with one radically pared-down adaptation, performed by a handful of actors in the Kibble Palace glasshouse. Last year’s ambitious reworking of Henry IV Parts I and II, performed by a cast of just three, was a powerful, drum-tight account of Prince Hal’s relationships with his two parental guides, his father the king and feckless Falstaff.
Jennifer Dick’s reimagining of Richard II, which features a quartet of actors and minimal staging, achieves a similar level of intensity, boiling down Shakespeare’s history play to the appealingly simple idea of a weak and capricious monarch gradually losing his grip on power. Robert Elkin gives a compelling performance as the punk king, whom we first see clad in leather and gold, meting out banishments from a throne adorned with fairy lights. The actor achieves real pathos in the later scenes of sorrowful introspection once he has been relieved of his shiny garments, ointments and hollow crown.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
EmmaClaire Brightlyn, who is in commanding form as Lady Bolingbroke, Richard’s nemesis, provides the perfect complement to Elkin’s performance, while Finlay McLean gives a meticulous rendition of the dying John of Gaunt’s paean to a lost England. In a production that brings Richard’s relationship with his beloved Aumerle (Adam Donaldson) out of the closet, the tender scenes between the lovers add further poignancy to the king’s fall from grace.
Dick turns the limitations of the performance space into strengths, positioning actors at either end of the narrow corridor that runs the length of the Kibble Palace for scenes of confrontation, compelling us to turn our heads from side to side as though watching a tennis match. By way of contrast, the actors deliver some of the play’s soliloquies while seated amongst the audience.
Admittedly, there is the odd moment when the doubling of roles becomes a mite confusing, and although the production makes moving use of songs by Antony and the Johnsons and the Smiths, one or two of the musical cues threaten to clutter the spare aesthetic. Overall, Dick’s wisely keeps the focus squarely on the words and their meaning, which, with due regard to the strong performances, results in a production of exceptional clarity.