Richard II, The Vaults

by Laura Kressly

Shakespeare depicts Richard II as an ineffective and selfish ruler with little regard for his people or country. Instead of ruling fairly, he wastes the country’s money on unnecessary wars and steals from citizens to recoup the costs. In director Annie McKenzie’s production, this results in a kingdom ridden with violence and poverty, signified by costumes little more than filthy rags, copious stage blood, and recurring fights. This concept largely works but is undermined by a slow start, unneeded movement sequences, and some inconsistent handling of the text. Though the second half dramatically improves, the first is somewhat baggy and lacking in urgency, reducing the cumulative impact of the whole.

Shakespeare gave the king some of the most flowery and poetic monologues in the canon. They capture his self-indulgence, conviction in his divine right to rule and are absolutely gorgeous to speak and hear. However, they can significantly slow down the production if they’re not spoken with pace and urgency. Coco Maertens delivers them with an non-committal sarcasm and disregard for their inherent rhythm, which though it shows Richard’s lack of care for anyone but himself, flattens the energy and diminishes the turbulent start to the play. This malaise proves to be contagious; the subsequent plotting to overthrow the king is almost off-hand, as if the actors are discussing what to watch on TV instead of how they will commit history-changing treason. This ensemble of seven men around her otherwise jostle for power, though their performances are inconsistent. Sometimes they verge on the melodramatic, sometimes they are flat and emotionless. However, Edwin Flay as York is consistently adept at handling Shakespeare’s verse and driving through his scenes with an emotionally truthful fire that propels the story towards its tragic end.

Maertens ups her energy later, especially once she has been overthrown and has nothing left to lose. The ensemble also evens out a little, with less mismatch between individual performance style choices. It seems that the stakes have finally bedded into the cast’s creative choices and the true gravity of the story is finally conveyed. However, this should have happened from the opening scene, not two thirds of the way through.

Richard II runs through 8 May.

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