Culture writer Felicity Hemming heads down to the Underground at the Guild of Students to watch Article 19 society’s latest politically charged performance.
Atmospheric and political, Article 19’s performance of Richard II had the audience involved from the outset. Walking through the black curtains of the Guild’s Underground, on a snowy spring night, to find the room mirrored with traverse seating, only a single throne-like chair stood on the stage at the far end, and a sceptre laid on a long table in front, all the world really did become a stage. The reserve signs on the front line of seats are removed and the audience stir in confusion as the cast file out onto the stage and sit amongst us. The lights go out. The performance has begun.
As we hear the sound of John Bercow’s voice (the speaker in the House of Commons), telling noisy MPs to think about their ‘undemocratic’ behaviour above some sombre classical music, which gives the opening of the play an eerie feel, I realise what the setup reminds me of: The House of Commons itself. The sound recording relates to the speeches and cries of ‘aye’, ‘hear hear’, ‘traitor’ and ‘liar’ in the Parliament scene that follows and reappears at the end, in a cyclical style that shows how nothing has changed. This is just one of the (perhaps less subtle) breadcrumbs Director George Davies’ scattered throughout the production, which point out the relevance of Shakespeare’s work in today’s political and social climate.
Richard II is a story of corruption, rebellion, and blood, which starts in Parliament with Henry Bolingbroke accusing Thomas Mowbray of murder. Long speeches, convincing and passionate, well-delivered, were however quite hard to follow, due perhaps to the speed or the delay, certainly for my ears, in adjusting again to the richness of the Shakespearean language. What was arguably just as impressive was the subtle performances of the actors amongst each side of the audience, shouting support or ridicule at the disputing parties. I found it interesting that the director chose to open the play with the actors amongst the audience, and found it an extremely effective method of engagement. When the King changes his mind, the duel is called off and the dispute settled with the two men being sent into exile. The events which follow lead to the exposure of Richard’s corruption and eventually his decline in popularity as a rebellion arises to depose and replace him with the newly-favoured Henry Bolingbroke.
The small, rather quirky and imaginative staging choices were particularly enjoyable to notice. The transitions between scenes were simple and efficient: dimming the lights whilst maintaining the atmosphere and suspense with a selection of sombre classical pieces and a sound recording of a few characters reading a passage from the play. At one point dead leaves were scattered around the edges of the seating, linking in with the garden metaphor that ran throughout the play, arguably representing the withering support for Richard as King. Upon his visit to the dying side of Jane of Gaunt, Richard swaps the red rose on her bedside table for a white one, which may be a reference to the play’s historical context amongst the War of the Roses, the series of civil wars amongst the branches of the Royal House of Plantagenet. During a few scene changes where the lights didn’t dim, different flowers were placed at either side of the stage. This gave the impression of time passing, the seasons of Richard II’s reign.
Throughout the performance, the quality of acting was extremely high. The cast and crew were clearly very passionate about the production and gave a fantastic final performance of the play. In particular Jane of Gaunt’s (Pippa Chilvers) dying speech, and the portrayal of York (Kalifa Taylor) were quite striking. Not to mention the impressive portrayal of Richard II (Joe Bonfield); the spoilt, corrupt King, yet also vulnerable and sensitive as he realises the imminent loss of his throne, his identity crisis and the separation with his wife, evoking pity in the audience. At times with the multiple casting of some of the actors was slightly confusing to those of us who didn’t know the play. The change in costume wasn’t always different enough to be helpful, but for the parts of Mowbray, Willoughby and one of the gardeners we were guided by Thomas Baldachin’s impressive array of accents.
Although, blood is a central motif, the climactic moment of the body bag being dragged into Parliament by the desperate Percy, his hands dripping with blood, was not built up to enough to evoke the dramatic effect I feel it was intended to create. The previous onstage murders were discreetly shocking, which in my opinion was appropriate in a play with such a low body count (for Shakespeare anyway), yet they still managed to keep the audience on their toes. Whilst the Union Jack watering cans filled with blood (symbolising the blood of the English) were not emphasised enough to create much tension leading up to the final regicide.
Richard II may seem a strange choice for UoB’s longest running theatre society, however I thoroughly enjoyed the balance of thematic exploration, of power, loyalty and identity, with the light comic relief provided by some minor characters of Richard’s court and the ‘Northern’ gardeners, which wasn’t hilarious but got a fair amount of laughter from the audience.
Overall, Article 19 have done Richard II justice as one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays; it was a well-directed, brilliantly performed and a thought provoking performance that I thoroughly enjoyed.