I am continually awed by how fresh and vital a good director can make Shakespeare seem, and Andrew Hilton’s Richard II was an excellent example. His cast clearly trust him, and were prepared to give themselves wholeheartedly to a piece which, in less capable hands, can seem dry and irrelevant. As it happens, I have a soft spot for Richard II (the play not the man); I think it’s one of Shakespeare’s most subtle and interestingly ambiguous plays, and one that has depths to plumb. While this does set me up to enjoy a performance of it, it also means that a bad production will incur greater wrath.

However, as I say, the play was in the safe hands of Hilton, who coaxed some exceptional performances from his actors and brought the plain staging alive with intrigue, plots and murders. There can be a stigma around the histories, mainly because without the neat label of ‘comedy’ or ‘tragedy’ it can be hard to know what to expect. To my mind, when the ‘history’ plays are done well they combine the best of both worlds: Richard II has some of the funniest scenes in Shakespeare as well as some of the most desperately sad.

The play stands or falls on its eponymous king, and John Hefferman was a stunning Richard. The character is morally ambiguous, conflicted and complex. Hefferman charted Richard’s transition from king to pauper with subtlety and humour, making his eventual fall from grace and abject humiliation all the more poignant. He is not always the most likeable character, and Hefferman did well to make the petulant king sympathetic, even as you root for the usurping Bullingbrook to seize the crown.

The first half rattles along; this is high-octane stuff. Hilton skillfully keeps it going at a frenetic pace, making the sudden, quiet moments shockingly powerful. These shifts in tempo kept the audience tense, even if historical knowledge means you know how it’s going to end. The second half was generally more measured, and although this allowed Hefferman to demonstrate his range and to dig deep into the heart of Richard, I found the lack of contrasting, more frantic moments lessened the impact that the calmer moments had in the first half.

Matthew Thomas’s Bullingbrook found a nice balance between ambition and fealty, not giving the audience an easy ‘hero’ to get behind: the whole story is geared around a series of conflicted characters who do not fall into neat  ‘good’ and ‘evil’ categories. This can make a nice contrast to the broader brushstrokes of the comedies, say, where there is often a single ‘baddie’ to direct antipathy towards. Paul Currier as the god-fearing and loyal Bishop of Carlisle gave a strong performance, and John Cording was brilliant as the Duke of Northumberland, a man torn between duty, reality and family. Ffion Jolly makes the most of the thinly-written part of Queen, endowing her with self-possession, a sense of entitlement and a deep attachment to her husband, in the space of a few lines.

The set is spare, in usual Tobacco Factory style. The bare stage is occasionally graced with a bench, a table, a stool, but beyond that the court, garden, prison are conjured by word and action. The actors work hard in the mostly empty space and it is delightfully easy to imagine the “gorgeous palace”, the quiet garden, the humble cell, as Hilton guides his cast through a play that resounds across the years and speaks to a contemporary audience in a surprisingly clear voice.

Richard II is playing at the Tobacco Factory until 12th March. More information and tickets available on their website here.